ISLAMABAD – Six people were killed and another 200 injured Saturday as police launched an operation to clear Islamist protesters from an intersection linking the Pakistani capital with the garrison city of Rawalpindi, doctors at local hospitals said. The protest triggered demonstrators to take to the streets of other cities across the country in solidarity, bringing them to a virtual standstill.
Dr. Masood Safdar of Benazir Bhutto Hospital said five civilians arrived dead from bullets wounds. Dr. Tariq Niazi of the Holy Family Hospital confirmed the death of a young man who was shot in head during the violence at Faizabad intersection and the surrounding area.
Hundreds of police in riot gear had moved in against the supporters of the Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah party early Saturday after a deadline expired at midnight. The police action and reaction from protesters, who had camped out at the venue for the last 20 days, sent scores of injured police and protesters to hospitals with injuries caused by stoning and respiratory problems from tear gas. Hospital officials said near 200 people were injured, most of them police.
News of the police intervention spread quickly, prompting sympathizers in cities round the country to take to the streets in a show of solidarity with the Islamabad protesters. The situation prompted the country’s regulatory body for electronic media to take TV broadcasts off the air. Key social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were also blocked. Government officials were not immediately available for comment on the situation.
Taking note of a worsening situation, military chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa telephoned Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi to call for the peaceful handling of the protest, according to a tweet by military spokesman Maj. Gen Asif Ghafoor.
Senior police officer Ismatullah Junejo said police were swiftly clearing the venue as some 300 protesters ignored the final warning to disperse. He said none of the police carried firearms to avoid loss of life, instead using only tear gas and a water cannon to disperse the protesters. But witnesses said at one point a police van came under attack and was set on fire after two police officers aimed assault rifles at protesters.
Police lobbed tear gas canisters and deployed the water cannon while surrounding and arresting dozens of protesters who resisted by throwing rocks. The riot police used batons against protesters who resisted.
The government had made several attempts to resolve the stalemate through negotiations with the protesters, who demanded the resignation of a law minister over an omitted reference to the Prophet Muhammad in a parliamentary bill. The minister, Zahid Hamid, apologized for the omission — a phrase saying that Muhammad is the last prophet in Islam — saying it was a clerical error that was later corrected.