Monday 26 August 2019

Army troops called in after police clash with Islamist supporters

Demonstrators protest as police fire tear gas shells to disperse them (AP/Anjum Naveed)
Demonstrators protest as police fire tear gas shells to disperse them (AP/Anjum Naveed)

Pakistan's government called in army troops on Saturday to restore order after police clashed with an Islamist group's supporters that have been camped out for the last twenty days at a key intersection near the capital Islamabad, state TV reported.

The protest has prompted demonstrators to take to the streets of other cities across the country in solidarity, bringing them to a virtual standstill.

State TV reported that the Interior Ministry said on Saturday that army troops had been summoned to assist the city's civil administration in clearing the Faizabad intersection.

It did not specify when the army would be deployed. No army presence was yet visible in the area.

Six people were killed and 200, mostly police, were injured as police tried to clear the intersection linking the Pakistani capital with the garrison city of Rawalpindi, doctors at local hospitals said.

The demonstrators are demanding the resignation of a law minister over an omitted reference to the Prophet Muhammad in a parliamentary bill.

Dr Masood Safdar of Benazir Bhutto Hospital said five civilians arrived dead from bullet wounds.

Dr Tariq Niazi of the Holy Family Hospital confirmed the death of a young man who was shot in the head during the violence at the intersection and the surrounding area.

Hundreds of police in riot gear had moved in against the supporters of the Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah party early Saturday after a deadline expired at midnight.

The police action and reaction from protesters, who had camped out there for the last 20 days, sent scores of injured police and protesters to hospitals with injuries caused by stoning and respiratory problems from tear gas.

Hospital officials said about 200 people were injured, most of them police.

News of the police intervention spread quickly, prompting sympathisers in cities round the country to take to the streets in a show of solidarity with the Islamabad protesters.

The situation prompted the country's regulatory body for electronic media to take TV broadcasts off the air. Key social media sites were also blocked.

Military chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa telephoned Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi to call for the peaceful handling of the protest, according to a tweet by military spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor.

Senior police officer Ismatullah Junejo said police were swiftly clearing the area as some 300 protesters ignored the final warning to disperse.

He said none of the police carried firearms to avoid loss of life, instead using only tear gas and a water cannon to disperse the protesters.

But witnesses said at one point a police van came under attack and was set on fire after two police officers aimed assault rifles at protesters.

Police lobbed tear gas canisters and deployed the water cannon while surrounding and arresting dozens of protesters who resisted by throwing rocks. The riot police used batons against protesters who resisted.

The government had made several attempts to resolve the stalemate through negotiations with the protesters, who demanded the resignation of a law minister over an omitted reference to the Prophet Muhammad in a parliamentary bill.

The minister, Zahid Hamid, apologised for the omission, saying it was a clerical error that was later corrected.

But protest leaders were adamant and refused to clear the intersection unless the law minister resigned.

Saturday's action came after a court ordered an end to the protest because it was disrupting daily life.

Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal told state television that the government had shown patience in dealing with the protesters.

"The administration is taking action under court order but still we are open for talks with them," he said, referring to the protesters.

Mr Iqbal said that some among the protesters wanted to create chaos and destabilisation in the country.


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