Pakistan government calls in army after police, Islamists clash

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistan’s government on Saturday called on the army to help clear a sit-in by Islamist hard-liners blockading the capital after police clashed with activists and religious protests spread to other cities.

More than 100 people were wounded in Saturday’s clashes, including at least 65 members of the security forces, according to reports from hospitals. Protesters said four of their activists had been killed, but police said there had been no deaths.

Television footage showed a police vehicle on fire, heavy curtains of smoke and fires burning in the streets as officers in heavy riot gear advanced. Protesters, some wearing gas masks, fought back in scattered battles across empty highways and surrounding neighbourhoods.

By nightfall, protests spread to several other big cities with activists brandishing sticks and attacking cars in some areas. New demonstrators had joined the camp in Faizabad, just outside Islamabad, in a stand-off with police,

Private TV stations were ordered off the air, with only state-run television broadcasting. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were also blocked in many areas.

About 1,000 activists from Tehreek-e-Labaik, a new hard-line Islamist political party, have blockaded the main road into the capital for two weeks, accusing the law minister of blasphemy against Islam and demanding his dismissal and arrest.

“We are in our thousands. We will not leave. We will fight until end,” Tehreek-e-Labaik party spokesman Ejaz Ashrafi told Reuters by telephone from the scene.

Tehreek-e-Labaik is one of two new ultra-religious political movements that have risen up in recent months and seem set to play a major role in elections that must be held by summer next year, though they are unlikely to win a majority.

Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal told Reuters in a message on Saturday night that the government had “requisitioned” the military assistance “for law and order duty according to the constitution”.

The ruling party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif – who was disqualified by the Supreme Court in July and is facing a corruption trial – has a fraught history with the military, which in 1999 launched a coup to oust Sharif from an earlier term.

Earlier in the day, Iqbal said the protests were part of a conspiracy to weaken the government, which is now run by Sharif’s allies under a new prime minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi.

“There are attempts to create a chaos in (the) country,” Iqbal said on state-run Pakistan TV.

“I have to say with regret that a political party that is giving its message to people based on a very sacred belief is being used in the conspiracy that is aimed at spreading anarchy in the country,” Iqbal added, without saying who he considered responsible.

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