Thousands of Pakistani lawyers and activists have arrived in the capital Islamabad to demand the reinstatement of judges fired by Pervez Musharraf, the president.
Protesters waved flags from the top of buses on Friday as a convoy of hundreds of vehicles completed its 24-hour "long march' from the eastern city of Lahore.
The lawyers have vowed to stage a sit-in outside parliament until the judges, including Iftikhar Chaudhry, the deposed supreme court chief justice, are restored.
Around 6,000 paramilitary troops and police were deployed in Islamabad ahead of the arrival of the lawyers.
"We received a big ovation en route but the welcome in Rawalpindi crossed all limits. I am overwhelmed with emotions," Aitzaz Ahsan, a key Chaudhry aide and protest organiser, said.
"There will be no closure of this issue until the fearless, independent judges are reinstated."
Nawaz Sharif, a leader in Pakistan's ruling coalition and a former prime minister, joined the convoy of vehicles on Friday after addressing the protesters at a rally the previous day.
"We won't let anyone sit in peace until the judges are restored"
Nawaz Sharif, Paksitani former prime minister
"We won't let anyone sit in peace until the judges are restored," he said.
Sharif's remarks were seen as a veiled criticism of Asif Ali Zardari, leader of the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and widower of Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister who was assassinated last year.
"It is so sad and regrettable that even though we have democracy we are still demanding the restoration of the judges," Sharif said.
Chaudhry and dozens of other judges were dismissed when Musharraf declared emergency rule last year.
Al Jazeera's Imran Khan, reporting from Islambad, said the event had been dubbed "etxraordinary" by the lawyers' movement.
"This [protest] will go on into the early hours of the morning. Official estimates say there are 10,000 people," said.
|The protesters have vowed to continue|
until the judges are restored [AFP]
"It is a massive threat to president Musharraf's government. He has been consipicous by his absence.
"We have heard nothing from him; he has not appeared on state television or on any local private media channels.
"He is actually holed up in the army house - his private residence in Rawalpindi. He must be very nervous at the numbers of the people that have turned up."
Khan said that the protesters were not just trying to force the restoration of the judges, but they were also putting pressure on Musharraf to step down.
The president has been isolated since his allies were trounced in a February election.
But Sharif's participation in the protest also threatens the tenuous unity of the two-month-old coalition government led by the PPP.
Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League Party is in coalition with the PPP but the two leaders have differed on how to bring back the dozens of dismissed judges.
Analysts have suggested that, if restored, Chaudhry may review an amnesty that dropped corruption cases against Bhutto, Zardari and other PPP members.
That, critics say, is why Zardari has been reluctant to restore Chaudhry and his colleagues.