Pakistani police, protesters clash over power cuts

AP News
Posted: Oct 04, 2011 6:49 AM
Pakistani police, protesters clash over power cuts

Protesters upset over severe electricity shortages clashed with police for a second day in eastern Pakistan on Tuesday, as the country's main opposition leader used the issue to pressure the U.S.-allied government.

Parts of Pakistan face power cuts of up to 18 hours per day, undermining the country's weak economy and increasing hardship for citizens already facing a rampant Taliban insurgency. Anger periodically boils over into violent protests.

Demonstrators threw stones at police Tuesday in Gujranwala, a major industrial city of some 4 million people in Punjab province. Local television footage showed the police throwing some of the rocks back, lobbing tear gas, and charging the crowd with their batons.

Angry mobs had burned six electricity company offices in the city on the first day of rioting on Monday and set fire to several rooms in a police station, said Gujranwala police chief Ahsan Tufail. Fourteen policemen were injured in Monday's clashes and 20 people were arrested, he said.

Demonstrators took to the streets in mostly peaceful protests in several other parts of Pakistan on Tuesday, including Faisalabad in Punjab and Peshawar, the main city in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

The country's main opposition leader, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, lashed out at the government over the electricity shortages.

"The country is facing a severe power crisis, but the government is sleeping and doing nothing for the last 15 months over this issue," Sharif told reporters in Bahawalpur, another city in Punjab.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani sought to deflect blame away from his government in an address to parliament on Monday, pointing his finger at the United States. He said that the U.S. should help Pakistan solve its energy crisis if it wanted better ties.

Pakistan and the U.S. are nominally close allies in the war against Islamist extremists, and Islamabad has received billions of dollars in military and civilian aid over the past decade, including money to help the country's energy sector.

But the two countries have often clashed, and Pakistani officials regularly criticize the U.S. to divert attention away from their own government's performance.

Analysts say Pakistan's chronic electricity shortages are largely the result of the government not charging consumers enough and of customers, including the government, not paying their bills. There are also problems with outdated transmission systems and bureaucratic infighting that has stalled power generation projects.

The U.S. is working with the Pakistani government to increase the power supply by constructing and rehabilitating six power plants, according to the U.S. Embassy. This extra energy will eradicate 20 percent of Pakistan's existing energy shortage, it said.

But many analysts say a lasting solution to the country's power crisis must involve politically painful increases in electricity prices and forcing customers to pay their bills.