Pakistani police fought running battles with stone-throwing Islamist activists on Saturday as they tried to clear a sit-in by religious hard-liners who have blocked the main routes into Islamabad for more than two weeks.
Dozens of people were injured, including many police, according to reports from hospitals. Protesters said four of their activists had been killed, although police said there have been no deaths
By nightfall new demonstrators had joined the camp in Faizabad, just outside Islamabad, in a stand-off with police, as protests spread to other main cities with activists brandishing sticks and attacking cars in some areas.
Private TV stations were ordered off the air, with only state-run television broadcasting.
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.
Chaos and ‘conspiracy’
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 said the protests were part of a “conspiracy” to weaken the government, which is still run by the party of ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was removed by the Supreme Court in July over unreported income.
“There are attempts to create a chaos in (the) country,” Ahsan 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 mentioning who he considered responsible.
Earlier on Saturday, Pakistan’s army chief called on the civilian government to end the protest while “avoiding violence from both sides”. Opposition leader Imran Khan called for early elections, saying the “incompetent and dithering” administration had allowed a “complete breakdown of governance”.
The clashes began on Saturday when police launched an operation involving some 4,000 officers to disperse around 1,000 activists and break up their camp, police official Saood Tirmizi told Reuters.
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 neighborhoods.
The protesters have paralyzed daily life in the capital, and have defied court orders to disband.
Tehreek-e-Labaik blames the law minister, Zahid Hamid, for changes to an electoral law that changed a religious oath, a change the party says amounts to blasphemy.
The government put the issue down to a clerical error and swiftly changed the language back.
Tehreek-e-Laibak was born out of a protest movement lionizing Mumtaz Qadri, a bodyguard of the governor of Punjab province who gunned down his boss in 2011 over his call to reform strict blasphemy laws.
The party won a surprisingly strong 7.6 percent of the vote in a by-election in Peshawar last month.
More join protests
The government had tried to negotiate an end to the sit-in, fearing violence during a crackdown similar to 2007, when clashes between authorities and supporters of a radical Islamabad mosque led to the deaths of more than 100 people.
Despite the police crackdown, the protesters were largely still in place by nightfall and Tehreek-e-Labaik leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a prominent cleric, remained at the site, party activist Mohammad Shafiq Ameeni said.
Four protesters had died in the police crackdown, he added.
By late afternoon, Tehreek-e-Labaik supporters were coming out on the streets in other Pakistani cities in support.
Police fired tear gas in Karachi, the southern port that is Pakistan’s largest city, to try to disperse about 500 demonstrators near the airport.
Outside the northwestern city of Peshawar, about 300 protesters blocked the motorway to Islamabad and started attacking vehicles with stones and sticks.
In the eastern city of Lahore, party supporters blocked three roads into the city. A Reuters witness saw activists brandishing sticks and blocking off other streets in Lahore, with no police in sight.
“We want them to disperse peacefully. Otherwise we have other options open,” Punjab provincial government spokesman Malik Ahmad Khan said.