Fighting the running battle with stone-throwing Islamist activists from Tehreek-e-Labaik, Pakistani police used tear gas and water cannon as they moved to clear a protest by the religious hard-liners who have blocked main routes into Islamabad for more than two weeks.
The clashes began on Saturday with the involvement of some 4,000 officers to disperse around 1,000 activists from Tehreek-e-Labaik. The police force is retaliating fiercely, police official Saood Tirmizi told Reuters.
Dozens of protesters were arrested, Mr. Tirmizi said, and a hospital reported at least 27 people were being treated for injuries. With an expected tumultuous elections arriving next year, the mass protest, plus the recent gains of two new Islamist parties in Pakistan, demonstrated the religious right’s gathering strength.
“We are in our thousands. We will not leave. We will fight until the end,” Tehreek-e-Labaik party spokesman Ejaz Ashrafi told Reuters by telephone from the scene. The protesters have defied court orders to disband and have paralyzed daily life in the capital. They are demanding the eviction of the Minister of Law.
Tehreek-e-Labaik blames the Minister, Zahid Hamid, for changes to an electoral oath that it says amounts to blasphemy. The government puts the issue down to a clerical error.
“Death to blasphemers” is a central rallying cry for Tehreek-e-Laibak, which 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, 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.
Since Tehreek-e-Labaik began its sit-in, the government has blocked several roads with shipping containers to corral the protesters, but that has caused hours-long traffic jams in and around the capital.
Fearing death on a mass scale similar to 2007 incident involving authorities and supporters of radical Islamabad mosque, the government had tried to negotiate an end to the sit-in.
About 500 demonstrators blocked one of the main roads in Karachi, the southern port that is Pakistan’s largest city, a Reuters witness said, though the gathering was peaceful.
“We want them to disperse peacefully. Otherwise, we have other options open,” he said. “We don’t want to use force, but we will if there is no other option left.”