Middle East

Pakistan Islamists rally on after deadly clashes with police

Pakistani Islamists pressed ahead with their rally near Islamabad in even larger numbers on Sunday, a day after clashes with police left six dead and dozens wounded.

Angry protesters gathered on the edge of Pakistan’s capital torched a car, three motorcycles and a guard post erected near the rally site Sunday. No casualties were reported.

Pakistani riot police and paramilitary troops were deployed nearby — apparently in preparation for another crackdown after security forces on Saturday failed to disperse supporters of the Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah party. But by midday, there was no action by the security forces.

The demonstrators have camped out at the Faizabad intersection for the past three weeks, demanding the resignation of the country’s law minister over an omitted reference to the Prophet Muhammad in a parliamentary bill. The minister, Zahid Hamid, apologized for the omission — a phrase saying that Muhammad is the last prophet in Islam was dropped from the text — and said it was a clerical error that was later corrected.

But the Islamists continued the rally, adamant that Hamid resign.

“God willing we will get victory and will disperse with honor,” cleric Mohammad Shahid Chishti told The Associated Press as about 3,000 demonstrators gathered Sunday.

On Saturday, security forces failed to disperse the protesters when riot police moved in with tear gas and batons. Hospital officials said nearly 200 people were hurt, most of them policemen. They confirmed six people were killed in clashes with police at the Islamabad rally.

The government asked the army for help but the military questioned the need of army troops, saying enough police and para military troops were available. Army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa on Sunday met with Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi to discuss the situation.

Pakistan’s commission that regulates electronic media continued to keep broadcasts off the air for a second day, allegedly because the media had violated the government policy banning live coverage of security operations. Key social media sites also remained blocked. By Sunday evening, private TV stations were back on air following a briefing and guidelines to the broadcasters about the policy.

Supporters of the Islamist party blocked roads and staged sit-ins for a second day Sunday in cities such as Karachi, Lahore, Multan and others, in a show of solidarity with the Islamabad demonstrators.

Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, was completely shut down for the second day Sunday as hundreds of protesters blocked over a dozen important intersections. They were largely peaceful but occasionally younger men hurled stones at the police, though elders quickly stopped them.

The biggest of almost two dozen rallies scattered across Lahore, the provincial capital of Punjab, was near the Punjab Assembly building, where some 3,000 protesters gathered peacefully.

Cleric Ashraf Jalali said the protesters would not leave until their demand for Hamid’s resignation is met. “We are peaceful but ready to face any kind of operation” by the police, he said.

In Multan, some 5,000 Islamist supporters marched through the city, chanting slogans against the government. Hundreds of protesters blocked roads elsewhere in Multan and in some places set car tires on fire. Public bus service was also suspended in Multan, Rawalpindi, Lahore and Islamabad.

Shah Mohammad Qureshi, a moderate opposition leader, criticized the government, saying it had mishandled the situation.

“This government has blocked the entire country to clear one intersection in Islamabad,” Qureshi said.

Malik Mohammad Ahmed, the Punjab provincial spokesman, said protesters in Rawalpindi on Saturday attacked the residence of the former interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar, damaging the main gate. They wounded lawmaker Javed Latif in Shaikhupura, hitting him in the head with a stone, he said. Angry crowds also attacked Law Minister Hamid’s villa in Pasroor, ransacking the place.

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