09172019What's Hot:

Pakistani Police and Cleric’s Supporters in Violent Clashes as Protests Spread

“Trump says change Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Are you acting on his orders?” he asked the police.

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At least 8,000 police officers in riot gear and a paramilitary police force began trying to clear out the protesters from the main interchange in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Saturday. Credit Anjum Naveed/Associated Press

At one point, the electronic media regulating authority took all television news networks off the air in most parts of the country, and Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were also inaccessible, amid concerns that live coverage of the police action was inflaming religious sentiments.

The violence and spreading protests present a grave challenge to the country’s governing party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz.

At least 8,000 police officers in riot gear and a separate paramilitary police force that had encircled the approximately 2,000 protesters began trying to clear the protesters staging a sit-in on the main interchange in the city early on Saturday.

Using water cannons, canisters of tear gas and slings, they managed to wrest back control of a large area. Dozens of tents burned. Thick plumes of smoke and tear gas could be seen from afar as protesters and police officers clashed, each side using stones and batons.

But by midday, the balance seemed to have shifted back to the protesters, who remained in control of the main part of their camp. Dozens of officers were among the injured, officials said.

As the protesters held their ground, Mr. Rizvi grew bolder and urged his supporters to bring the whole country to a standstill. Mr. Rizvi’s speeches were broadcast on Facebook Live and helped to galvanize his supporters across the country.

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The police fired rubber bullets to disperse protesters. Officials took television news networks off the air amid concerns that live coverage of the events was inflaming religious sentiments. Credit Anjum Naveed/Associated Press

By Saturday evening, officials said the operation against the protesters in Islamabad had been suspended, and they denied that a police officer had died during the clashes, after local and foreign reports had published news of the death, attributing it to a police spokesman.

Protesters, meanwhile, stormed the home of Mr. Hamid in Pasrur in Sialkot District. Neither the law minister nor his relatives were present at the time of the attack.

Another lawmaker from the governing party, Mian Javid Latif, was attacked by protesters and injured in Sheikhupura District, the local news media reported. His condition was stable, they said. Local media outlets reported that protesters in Rawalpindi had damaged the entrance of the house of Nisar Ali Khan, a former interior minister.

Buoyed by the success of their resistance, the protest leaders have now increased their demands and are calling for the whole federal cabinet to resign.

The Islamabad high court last week ordered the government to clear the interchange. But it has been reluctant to use force, fearful that violence could give more oxygen to the hard-line Islamists.

The government has also refused to fire Mr. Hamid, and negotiations for a peaceful end to the protests have been unsuccessful. Reversing the change in the law has failed to assuage the anger of religious leaders, especially Mr. Rizvi, who has used the controversy to expand his influence and outreach.

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A protester near burning tents in Islamabad. the protests spread to other Pakistani cities in response to the confrontation in the capital. Credit Reuters

The authorities said that protests had closed a road that connects Islamabad to the eastern city of Lahore, where hundreds of protesters burned tires and scuffled with the police. There were clashes in the southern port city of Karachi, according to media reports.

Pakistan’s politically powerful Army has urged the government to move cautiously. According to a military spokesman, the Army chief of staff, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, called Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi on Saturday.

He urged him “to handle the protest peacefully, avoiding violence from both sides as it is not in the national interest,” the spokesman, Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, said.

Afrasiab Khattak, a prominent politician and newspaper columnist, said in an interview that the protests represented a coordinated effort to topple the government.

“It is not a spontaneous protest,” he said. “It is a very well-planned move by the religious right and their supporters in the state system to use the clashes in Islamabad as a detonator for riots in other parts of the country, especially Punjab Province.”

Punjab is the country’s most prosperous and populous province and the political power base of Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister and leader of the current governing party. Mr. Sharif resigned in July, after the Supreme Court disqualified him from holding office following a corruption probe.

He remains popular, however, and his party has ruled out calling for early elections, a demand by opposition political parties.

Mr. Khattak said the protesters belonged to the Barelvi sect of Sunni Muslims, who had formed the bulk of Mr. Sharif’s support. “But now, the Barelvis have been pitted against Sharif’s party,” he said. “It is the endgame.”

Source: NYT > World

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