Pakistan tense as protests grow, reluctant military called in, TV stations down

The situation in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad remained stressed after attempts to disperse protesters resulted in violent clashes.

The military had to be called in, which as per reports appeared hesitant to respond to a government call for help.

Religious hard-liners Tehreek-e-Labaik have blocked main routes into Islamabad for more than two weeks now, in protest. 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.

Demonstrators have linked it to blasphemy — a highly contentious issue in Muslim Pakistan — and claim the oath was softened to enable the participation of Ahmadis, a long-persecuted Islamic minority sect.

Demonstrators blocked a major highway, paralysing Islamabad for weeks. Security forces had moved to clear it on Saturday but were met with stubborn resistance by protesters who torched vehicles and threw stones.

At least six people were killed and around 230 injured before security forces retreated on Saturday. Hospitals said most of the wounded had been released Sunday, with only around 20 still needing treatment.

On Saturday when police launched an operation, involving some 4,000 officers, to disperse around 1,000 activists from Tehreek-e-Labaik, a new hard-line Islamist political party, and break up their camp, clashes broke out.

Pakistani police used tear gas and watercannon, and fought running battles with stone-throwing activists.

Dozens of protesters were arrested, and a hospital reported at least 27 people were being treated for injuries.

The mass protest, plus the recent gains of two new Islamist parties in Pakistan, demonstrated the religious right’s gathering strength ahead of what are expected to be tumultuous elections next year.

But early on Sunday there was no official military response and no sign of armoured vehicles or soldiers on the streets. A military spokesman declined repeated requests for comment.

Private television broadcasts remained blocked and social media sites were restricted, sparking confusion about the state of protests and how authorities planned to respond to the spiralling situation.

The only channel working was Pakistan state TV — and it was airing a children’s programme.

The little known Islamist group at the centre of the protests are demanding the resignation of Pakistan’s law minister Zahid Hamid over a hastily-abandoned amendment to the oath that election candidates must swear.



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