Pakistani police using tear gas and water cannon fought stone-throwing Islamist activists on Saturday, as they moved to clear a long-running protest by religious hardliners in Islamabad.
Supporters of the Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah religious movement had been camping at a major intersection for nearly three weeks, paralysing traffic in the capital to protest against a government minister over what they consider blasphemy.
The police operation came after a court ordered the protest to stop, saying it has disrupted daily life in the capital. Residents say the blocked roads have caused major hassle and some patients even died because they couldn’t reach a hospital in time.
Dozens of people have been arrested and dozens more were injured in Saturday’s clashes, according to a police official.
The government ordered private television channels to go off air during the crackdown.
However, by midday Tehreek-e-Labaik supporters were coming out on the streets in other big cities, including Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi and Peshawar.
Supporters of Sharia law
The mass protests, combined with recent gains for two new Islamist parties, highlight the religious right’s growing influence in Pakistan ahead of elections next year.
Tehreek-e-Laibak was born out of a protest movement glorifying Mumtaz Qadri, a bodyguard of the governor of Punjab province who shot dead his boss in 2011 over his call to reform strict blasphemy laws.
The group, which advocates strict rule by Islamic Sharia law, won a surprisingly strong 7.6 percent of the vote in a by-election in Peshawar last month.
It has demanded the removal of a minister for omitting a reference to the Prophet Muhammad in a parliamentary bill.
The protesters have been camping out since Nov. 6 on a road linking Islamabad to the nearby city of Rawalpindi, causing massive traffic jams for the tens of thousands of people who commute to the capital each day.
The government had made several attempts to resolve the stalemate through negotiations.
Television footage showed a police vehicle on fire and smoke filling the streets as riot police advanced on the protesters.