Pakistan army silent as Islamists, police clash

Pakistani residents walk past a burning prison van torched by protesters from the Tehreek-i-Labaik Yah Rasool Allah Pakistan (TLYRAP) religious group during clashes with police in Rawalpindi.
Pakistani residents walk past a burning prison van torched by protesters from the Tehreek-i-Labaik Yah Rasool Allah Pakistan (TLYRAP) religious group during clashes with police in Rawalpindi. PHOTO: AFP

Govt orders army to help after failed crackdown on protesters, but no troops seen in the area

FAIZABAD (Pakistan) • Islamist party activists yesterday clashed with Pakistani security forces for a second day outside the capital, Islamabad, burning vehicles before withdrawing to a protest camp they have occupied for more than two weeks, police said.

Despite an order from the civilian government to the army on Saturday night to help restore order, no troops were at the scene around the protest camp in Faizabad, witnesses said.

The military's press department did not respond to queries about the government's order.

According to media reports, at least six people were killed the previous day, when several thousand police and paramilitary forces tried to disperse the religious hardliners, who have blocked the main route into the capital demanding that Law Minister Zahid Hamid be fired for committing blasphemy.

At least 150 people were wounded in Saturday's clashes, hospitals reported, and police superintendent Amir Niazi said 80 members of the security forces were among those casualties. Reuters could not confirm that there had been any deaths.

Yesterday morning, smoke billowed from the charred remains of a car and three motorcycles torched near the protest camp, where several thousand members of the Tehreek-e-Labaik party have gathered in defiance of the government.

After the early morning clashes yesterday, the area settled into an uneasy stand-off. The paramilitary Rangers force - which had held back from Saturday's confrontation - was in charge of yesterday's operations, officers said. "We still don't have orders to launch an operation. We will act as the government orders us," said the Rangers commander at the scene, Colonel Bilal, who gave only one name. "We have surrounded the protesters from all sides. We can move in when the government orders us."

The protests began on Nov 8 over a proposed change in election laws - just a few words of text - that weakened an oath that all candidates for public office must repeat, swearing they believe that Muhammad was the final prophet. Pakistan's population is 95 per cent Muslim.

The government swiftly apologised for the "clerical error", but protest leaders continued to push for further action, especially the firing of the Law Minister.

"We will not leave. We will fight until the end," Tehreek-e-Labaik party spokesman Ejaz Ashrafi told Reuters on Saturday.

Led by cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, Labaik is one of two new ultra-religious political movements that became prominent in recent months. Labaik, which campaigns on defending Pakistan's strict blasphemy laws, won a surprisingly strong 6 per cent and 7.6 per cent of the vote in two recent by-elections.

While Islamist parties are unlikely to win a majority, they could play a major role in elections that must be held by the summer of next year.

Tehreek-e-Laibak was born out of a protest movement lionising 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. Party leader Rizvi has called Qadri, who was executed last year, "a hero".

For a second day, private TV stations were ordered off the air, with only state-run TV broadcasting. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were also blocked.

After Saturday's failed crackdown by police, the government called for military assistance "for law and order duty according to the Constitution".

However, there has been no public statement from the military in response and no sign that any troops had left their barracks.

On Saturday before the government order, Pakistan's army chief called on the civilian government to end the protest while "avoiding violence from both sides", the military press wing said.

The ruling party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif - who was disqualified by the Supreme Court in July and is facing a corruption trial - has a fraught history with the military, which in 1999 launched a coup to oust Sharif from an earlier term.

Minister of Interior Ahsan Iqbal on Saturday said the protests were part of a conspiracy to weaken the government, which is now run by Sharif's allies under Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi.

"There are attempts to create chaos in (the) country," Mr Iqbal said on state-run Pakistan TV.

REUTERS , WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 27, 2017, with the headline 'Pakistan army silent as Islamists, police clash'. Print Edition | Subscribe