* Protesters clash with police, advance on PM house
(Adds U.S. statement)
ISLAMABAD, Sept 1 (Reuters) - Pakistani soldiers and
paramilitary forces secured the state television headquarters in
Islamabad on Monday after a crowd of anti-government protesters
stormed the building and took the channel off the air.
Protesters led by opposition leaders Imran Khan, a hero
cricket player turned politician, and firebrand Muslim cleric
Tahir ul-Qadri have been on the streets for weeks trying to
bring down the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Protests descended into deadly chaos over the weekend, with
demonstrators clashing with police in a central area near many
government buildings and embassies. Three people were killed.
Sharif, who was toppled by the army in a 1999 coup but
staged a comeback with a big election win in May last year, has
refused to quit while protest leaders have rejected his offers
of talks, creating a dangerous deadlock.
Clashes broke out early on Monday and continued sporadically
throughout the day. The state PTV channel and its
English-language PTV World service were taken off the air after
protesters stormed its headquarters.
A PTV source told Reuters the protesters had occupied the
main control room and smashed some equipment. Uniformed members
of a paramilitary force and soldiers later secured the building
and the station later came back on the air.
In the nuclear-armed nation where power has often changed
hands through military coups rather than elections, the army is
bound to play a key role in how the conflict unfolds.
It has not directly intervened, apart from meeting the
protagonists and calling on them to show restraint.
Army chief General Raheel Sharif met Prime Minister Sharif
on Monday, but it was unclear what they discussed.
WRIT OF THE STATE
Defence Minister Khawaja Asif told Reuters the government
was preparing to launch a selective crackdown against
protesters, possibly later on Monday, and warned demonstrators
against storming government buildings.
"The writ of the state must be enforced. We hope to make a
decisive move sometimes later today, not in the evening but even
before that," he said. "I personally feel that the next few
hours will determine the course of coming events."
Protesters have camped out in Islamabad since mid-August,
paralysing life in the centre of the capital and creating
massive traffic jams. The protest site, where many sleep rough,
is littered with rubbish and reeks of human waste.
How the crisis ends will be ultimately decided by the army.
If the protests get out of hand, the military could step in
decisively, imposing a curfew or even martial law.
There is also a question mark over how much protest leaders
are capable of controlling their own people, many of them
frustrated after weeks of hardship and no solution in sight.
Alternatively, the army could side with the protesters and
put pressure on Sharif to resign, in which case an interim
government would have be put in place and early parliamentary
elections held to elect a new government.
However, few observers believe the army is bent on seizing
power again. A weakened Sharif would allow the army to remain
firmly in charge of key issues such as relations with India and
Afghanistan while allowing the civilian government to deal with
day-to-day economic problems in which it has little interest.
The United States, already concerned about regional
stability at a time when most of its troops are leaving
neighbouring Afghanistan, called for restraint by all sides,
saying protesters had a right to demonstrate peacefully.
"Violence and destruction of private property and government
buildings are not acceptable means of resolving political
differences, however, and we strongly oppose any efforts to
impose extra-constitutional change to the political system,"
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Some ruling party officials have accused elements within the
military of orchestrating the protests to weaken the government.
Khan and Qadri have instructed their supporters to avoid any
confrontation with the armed forces and strictly follow their
orders. As soldiers entered the PTV building, many protesters
smiled and shook hands with them.
The military insists it does not meddle in politics but it
was known to be frustrated with the government, in particular
over the treason trial of former military chief and ex-President
Pervez Musharraf, who deposed Sharif in 1999.
There has also been disagreement on how to handle Islamist
militants, and on relations with old rival India.
On Monday morning, despite heavy rain, crowds of protesters
fought running battles with retreating police after breaking the
main gate into the Pakistan Secretariat area which houses
government ministries as well as Sharif's official residence.
After a brief lull during the day, protesters once again
charged towards police lines in the so-called Red zone - home to
the prime minister's house, parliament and foreign embassies -
as they sought to reach the prime minister's house.
Sharif, who was prime minister twice in the 1990s, swept to
office last year in Pakistan's first democratic transition of
power. He is due to address both houses of parliament on Tuesday
in an apparent effort to show that he is firmly in control.
Seeking to appear decisive as the conflict unfolded, the
government has also registered treason cases against Khan and
Qadri following the weekend clashes, the defence minister said.
But Sharif looks increasingly cornered, and even if he
survives the crisis he is likely to remain significantly
weakened for the rest of his tenure.
In a speech laced with populist slogans, Khan said he would
not call off the protests until Sharif resigns. "Pakistan's
Hosni Mubarak, who buys people with his money, was once thought
of as indispensable, but today his legs are shaking," he said,
likening Sharif to the ousted Egyptian leader.
(Additional reporting by Mehreen Zahra-Malik in Islamabad and
Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Tom Heneghan)