Pakistan protesters set for showdown
Police fired tear gas on protesters in Islamabad on Tuesday as clashes erupted with followers of a cleric who led a march on the city demanding a peaceful “revolution” and the dissolution of parliament.
Thousands of supporters of Canadian-Pakistani cleric Tahir-ul Qadri converged on parliament after arriving in the capital overnight following a 38-hour march from the eastern city of Lahore.
The 61-year-old Qadri has given the elected government, whose five-year mandate ends in March, until 11am to dissolve parliament or face a “democratic revolution”.
As the deadline approached, a reporter saw police fire tear gas shells at the crowd, after protesters brandishing sticks pelted stones at police around 500 metres from parliament.
The reporter said demonstrators smashed vehicle windows as they continued their march and reached the edge of the capital’s “Red Zone”, which houses parliament and other key buildings.
Gunshots were heard though it was unclear who fired them. Both protesters and the authorities accused each other.
Eight police were injured in the clashes, Doctor Tanvir Afsar Malik, a spokesman for the Federal Government Services Hospital, said.
Qadri spokesman Shahid Mursaleen accused police of opening fire as they tried to arrest the cleric on Tuesday morning.
“They opened fire on Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri’s car and tried to smash the windows,” he said.
Another march organiser, Muzamal Ahmed Khan, accused the authorities of trying to provoke them into violence.
“We were peaceful, we want to be peaceful, police fired tear gas and gunshots without any reason,” Muzamal Ahmed Khan said.
“This was the government’s conspiracy, we are not violent people. We have come here for a peaceful protest.”
But Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the protesters were carrying weapons and had opened fire on police. He accused Qadri of “bulldozing” an agreement with the authorities for a peaceful rally.
Security forces helicopters circled overhead as the protesters - said by a senior security official to number more than 25,000 - gathered near parliament.
Qadri’s demand for the military to have a say in a caretaker administration and for reforms has been seen by critics as a ploy by elements of the establishment, particularly the armed forces, to delay elections and sow political chaos.
The cleric’s followers dismantled a first barricade of shipping containers separating the initial venue of the protest from parliament and other sensitive buildings in the government and diplomatic enclave.
Qadri’s followers braved chilly temperatures of eight degrees Celsius to camp out overnight in the capital.
“I advise the administration, government employees and security forces don’t be afraid... By tomorrow the government will have been changed, so don’t worry, I have come here to free you from this slavery,” Qadri said in his address in the early hours.
The influential and moderate cleric, who runs an educational and religious organisation with networks all over the world, returned to Pakistan last month from years spent living in Canada, where he also has citizenship.
It remains to be seen how the government and security forces, deployed en masse throughout Islamabad, will respond to his ultimatum.
His supporters say his calls to end corruption and implement reforms could be the solution to endless problems in Pakistan, brought to the brink by a weak economy, crippling energy crisis and Islamist violence.
Mobile phone networks - sometimes used by Taliban militants to trigger bombs remotely - were suspended on Monday as part of draconian security measures that have shut down much of the centre of Islamabad.
Qadri wants a caretaker government set up in consultation with the military and judiciary when parliament disbands in mid-March, and is calling for reform so that “honest people” can be elected at polls due by mid-May.
If held on schedule, the election will mark the first democratic transition of power between two civilian governments in Pakistan’s 65-year history, which has been marked by bloodless coups and extensive periods of military rule.