Pakistan prepares to clear thousands of Islamist protesters from Islamabad sit-in

A man holding a picture of Mumtaz Qadri during a sit-in protest against his execution, in Islamabad, on March 29.
A man holding a picture of Mumtaz Qadri during a sit-in protest against his execution, in Islamabad, on March 29. PHOTO: REUTERS

ISLAMABAD (AFP) - Pakistani security forces readied to move on Islamist protesters to end a days-long sit-in on the streets of the capital after setting a Wednesday (March 30) morning deadline for them to disperse.

Several thousand protesters marched on Islamabad on Sunday, clashing with security forces before setting up camp outside key government buildings along the capital's main Constitution Avenue.

The protestors - who numbered some 25,000 at their peak - had gathered in support of Mumtaz Qadri, who was hanged in late February five years after he assassinated a liberal Punjab governor over his calls to reform the country's blasphemy laws.

The government gave the demonstrators an ultimatum to leave late Tuesday, but it went unheeded, prompting the government to issue a second call saying security forces would begin an operation to clear the area on Wednesday morning.

"If the protesters do not disperse peacefully tonight, then we will evict them in the morning in front of everyone," Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told reporters late Tuesday.

A police source said more than 5,000 security forces would be deployed to clear the sit-in, including the paramilitary Rangers and Frontier Corps with reinforcements from the Punjab police.

Army troops are already standing guard at government buildings near the protest camp.

Hailed as a hero by right-wing religious groups at the time of the murder, the demonstrators have demanded that Qadri be named a "martyr" and called for the execution of a Christian mother of five convicted for blasphemy.

They have also demanded the imposition of Syariah law.

The government has rejected their demands.

Qadri's hanging, hailed as a "key moment" by analysts in Pakistan's long battle against religious extremism, has become a flashpoint for the deep divisions in the conservative Muslim country.

A legal notice issued to the protesters and seen by AFP accused the protestors of attempting "to frustrate the government's drive against terrorism".

When the government first demanded for the sit-in to clear voluntarily, Interior Minister Khan said the protesters were using women and children as a "human shield" and the government could not clear the area at night for fear of hurting people.

AFP journalists at the scene on Tuesday did not see any women or children in the crowd of around 2,000.

Protesters shouted religious slogans while the leaders made fiery speeches vowing to continue their sit-in.

When the demonstrators first marched on the capital on Sunday, violent clashes erupted with the police and paramilitary troops.

The protesters set alight container trucks - positioned by the authorities at key intersections to try and block their advance on the capital - and the police responded with heavy tear-gas shelling.