Pakistan launches crackdown on religious protesters, setting off violent clashes

a group of people on a train track with smoke coming out of it: Pakistani security officials clash with supporters of the religious group 'Tehrik Labayk Ya Rasool Allah' in Islamabad as the government tries to disperse protesterrs who have blocked the main highway for days.© Shahzad/Epa-Efe/Rex/Shutterstock/Shahzad/Epa-Efe/Rex/Shutterstock Pakistani security officials clash with supporters of the religious group ‘Tehrik Labayk Ya Rasool Allah’ in Islamabad as the government tries to disperse protesterrs who have…

Hundreds of people were arrested, and their tents and belongings at a highway interchange were set afire, sending clouds of smoke into the air. Officials said numerous police and other security forces were injured or disabled by tear gas. Ambulances rushed to and from the scene, and helicopters circled overhead. Officials warned residents to remain indoors as clashes continued for hours, and all regional hospitals were ordered on emergency alert.

The assault had been expected for days, as religious leaders refused government orders to disperse and ignored repeated deadlines. The demonstrations began three weeks ago and have grown steadily, with emotionally charged crowds calling for the removal of a cabinet minister. They are upset about a previous proposed change in election laws that weakened requirements for all candidates to swear they believe that Muhammad was the final Islamic prophet.

a man holding a gun: A police officer fires rubber bullets to disperse protesters during a clash in Islamabad. Pakistani police have launched an operation to clear an intersection linking capital Islamabad with the garrison city of Rawalpindi where an Islamist group's supporters have camped out for the last 20 days.© Anjum Naveed/AP A police officer fires rubber bullets to disperse protesters during a clash in Islamabad. Pakistani police have launched an operation to clear an intersection linking capital Islamabad with the garrison city of Rawalpindi where an…

Despite the presence of thousands of security forces, protesters continued to resist or escape them throughout the day, with some leaders and others wearing gas masks. Meanwhile, supporters in Karachi, Lahore and other cities rallied in separate demonstrations, creating a growing sense of confrontation and loss of government control. Some security officials reportedly called for martial law to be imposed, although the army said it would act only on civilian orders.

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“The fight with the police is in the streets, and they are on the run. We are winning and we will be on the roads as long as the government stays,” said Sayed Sabtain, 26, a protester in the crowd Saturday morning. “Earlier this was about the law minister resigning, but now all the government has to go. If they think they can defeat us with bullets, we are here to die for the respect of the prophet.”

The protests, which have blocked traffic for days on the major expressway between the federal capital and the neighboring garrison city of Rawalpindi, are led by a radical Islamic group that is dedicated to revering the prophet Muhammad and to upholding strict laws against religious blasphemy. It was formed two years ago and built a cult movement around Mumtaz Qadri, a bodyguard who assassinated a provincial governor in 2011 for defending a woman accused of blasphemy. Qadri was hanged for murder last year, and supporters built an ornate shrine to him on the outskirts of the capital.

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The group, called the Movement in Service to the Finality of the Prophet, was once viewed as a strictly religious fringe group, but it has also recently become involved in politics, fielding candidates in two parliamentary elections. It claims to be peaceful and nonideological, and it has been steadily gaining support among the Muslim populace. Pakistan, a poor country of 207 million, is 95 percent Muslim. The movement also crusades against Ahmedis, a religious minority that claims to be Muslim but follows a 19th-century prophet, and it has accused the government of favoring Ahmedis by trying to change the election law.

In recent days, as hundreds of thousands of people have been prevented from getting to work, school and home by the traffic snarls, the government headed by Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has attempted to negotiate with the protest leaders, but they refused to back down from demanding that the federal law minister, Zahid Hamid, be fired for allegedly engineering the proposed change in the electoral law.

Officials have apologized for the proposed law change, attributing it to a “clerical error,” but have been reluctant to use force against the protesters, even after the Islamabad High Court called the protest illegal and an “act of terror” against the public. For the past three days, officials threatened to forcibly disperse the protesters but then gave them more time. On Thursday, the Islamabad court threatened to hold the federal interior minister with contempt of court for failing to evict them. The government then gave a final dispersal deadline of midnight Friday, and at dawn the police assault commenced.

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