Pakistan calls in the army to restore order as Islamist protests turn violent

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AFP) — Pakistan’s government called on the powerful military to deploy in the capital Islamabad Saturday after deadly unrest broke out when police moved to dislodge an Islamist protest that has brought the city to a near-standstill.

At least one person was killed and 190 injured — some 137 of whom were security personnel — when police moved in to disperse the demonstration earlier Saturday, sparking fierce clashes.

Security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets but the demonstrators blocked roads and burned police vehicles around the site of the sit-in. As the violence intensified, protests sprouted in the major cities of Lahore and Karachi, as well as smaller towns across the country.

Authorities had been attempting to clear a small protest by the little-known hardline group called Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah Pakistan (TLYRAP) that has blocked a main highway into Islamabad since November 6, causing hours-long traffic snarls and enraging citizens.

It was not clear how many protesters remained in the streets of the capital late Saturday. There had been roughly 2,000 as the operation began, but AFP reporters said dozens more were arriving throughout the day.

Police and paramilitary forces retreated following the clashes, with the Islamabad Capital Territory authorities making the request for the army to step in soon after.

An interior ministry order said the federal government had authorised the deployment of “sufficient troops” to “control law and order” in the city until further notice.

There was no immediate comment from military officials.

The demonstrations have threatened the beleaguered Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) government ahead of a general election due to be held next year.

Analysts and critics accused it of bungling its response, which authorities hesitating for days over fears of violence as the city’s commuters seethed in the traffic choked streets.

The TLYRAP are demanding that Pakistan’s law minister Zahid Hamid resign over a hastily-abandoned amendment to the oath that election candidates must swear.

Demonstrators have linked it to blasphemy — a highly contentious issue in Muslim Pakistan — and claim the oath was softened to enable the participation of Ahmadis, a long-persecuted Islamic minority sect.

Alarmed residents

Earlier, police in Karachi said some 200 protesters had blockaded a major road in the southern port, with at least nine people injured — including three with gunshot wounds — brought to hospital, according to doctors.

Markets and shops were closing in the megacity, Pakistan’s commercial hub, as alarmed residents stayed inside while hardline clerics urged more people to take to the streets.

An AFP journalist in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, said Mall Road, the main artery in the eastern city, had been closed by police due to protests, while a deployment of paramilitary rangers was being sought by city officials. Smaller rallies were reported in other towns across the country.

Earlier in the day Pakistan’s powerful military chief phoned the prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi to urge the situation be handled “peacefully”.

General Qamar Javed Bajwa called for both sides to avoid violence “as it is not in national interest”, army spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor said on Twitter.

Pakistan’s media regulator barred local TV channels from broadcasting live images from the scene, though protesters were still using Facebook Live and other social media to galvanise support across the country.

‘Explosive’ situation

The protesters come from the Barelvi sect of Islam that has strong ties to Sufism, a mystical branch of the religion that is seen as moderate.

However the execution in 2016 of Barelvi follower Mumtaz Qadri — who assassinated liberal Punjab governor Salman Taseer over his stance on the country’s blasphemy laws — led members of the group to take a more hardline stance against any moves to reform the legislation.

“These people already had a grudge against the government and the government just provided them the opportunity to vent out their anger,” said political analyst Hasan Askari.

The demonstrators had vowed to die for their cause.

But weeks of inaction from authorities sparked the wrath of Pakistan’s judiciary, with the Supreme Court issuing a blistering statement earlier in the week and the Islamabad High Court threatening to hold government officials in contempt over the official response.

The chaos in the capital comes as the government is facing severe challenges.

The Supreme Court had already dealt a blow to the PML-N by ousting its leader, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, over a graft investigation in the summer. Finance minister Ishaq Dar, also embroiled in corruption allegations, has taken indefinite medical leave.

Analysts said the government had allowed a minor issue to grow into a headline-grabbing and potentially dangerous situation.

Even before Saturday’s clashes the sit-in had cost the life of an eight-year-old child whose ambulance could not reach a hospital in time due to the blocked roads.

“Politically driven procrastination has its own costs and this is what the government is paying,” analyst Imtiaz Gul told AFP, adding that the situation was “explosive”.

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