LAHORE, Pakistan — A crackdown by the Pakistani government to prevent a national demonstration and detain the country’s leading opposition figure collapsed on Sunday, and what had been a clash between the police and protesters transformed into a huge anti-government rally.
In what analysts here called an unprecedented reversal by security forces, phalanxes of riot policemen here in Lahore melted away rather than continue to confront protesters who had rallied around the opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, when he defied a house arrest order early Sunday.
By early evening, the sight of exuberant anti-government crowds in Lahore — a mix of Mr. Sharif’s loyalists, supporters of smaller opposition parties and ordinary people with their young children — encouraged people in other cities in the Punjab Province to come out on the streets
But by 5 p.m., the police disappeared and huge crowds, on foot and in cars, enveloped the Mall. Green, red and white banners of with portraits of Mr. Sharif were held aloft as other groups, including Jamaat-i-Islami, a right wing Islamist group, joined what turned into the anti-government demonstration that the government had feared all along. The leader of the lawyers’ movement, Aitzaz Ahsan, moved toward the High Court, accompanied by scores of lawyers, to make a speech.
One of the senior officials in the Lahore government, the chief magistrate, Sajjad Bhutta, told reporters he refused to carry out what he called the illegal acts of the police crackdown. He appeared among the crowds on the mall, surrounded by cheers and waving flags.
Mr. Ahsan said that protesters would try to defy the government’s efforts to keep them away from Islamabad and would attempt to converge on the capital from various points around the country on Monday.
“The strategy is simple,” Mr. Ahsan said. “The long march is on for an indefinite period.”
There appeared to have been a decision, either by provincial officials, many of whom support Mr. Sharif, or at the national level, to allow Mr. Sharif to proceed.
This is the first time in the history of Pakistan that the police and civil administration have defied orders by the government to control public demonstrations,” said Ashtar Ali, a corporate lawyer who supports the Pakistan Muslim League-N. “The writ of the government has failed.”
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