ISLAMABAD •Pakistan's law minister resigned yesterday as the embattled civilian government bowed to demands from a small Islamist group whose anti-blasphemy protest in the capital has fuelled deadly violence and sparked demonstrations across the country.
Protest leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi called off the sit-in after state media reported minister Zahid Hamid's resignation early yesterday. He said he had military assurances that his Tahreek-e-Labaik group's demands would be met.
"On the assurance of the Chief of Army Staff, we are calling off the sit-in," he told a crowd of around 2,500, adding that his group was abandoning plans to issue a fatwa against Mr Hamid and calling for roads and schools to be reopened.
The decision to capitulate to the protesters' demands is a major embarrassment for the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) as it eyes elections next year, analysts said, and underscores the influence of religious groups in the nuclear-armed country of 207 million.
Mr Rizvi's previously obscure group has been calling for weeks for Mr Hamid's ousting over a hastily abandoned amendment to the oath that election candidates must swear. It has occupied a main highway into Islamabad since Nov 6 and virtually paralysed the capital.
The protesters have linked the amended wording to blasphemy - a highly contentious charge in Muslim Pakistan which carries the death penalty. Even unproven allegations have spurred mob lynchings and murders.
Yesterday's announcement came after Saturday's botched operation to disperse the demonstrators sparked violence in Islamabad that left at least seven people dead and hundreds wounded. It fuelled the spread of the protests and blockades to major cities across the country including Karachi and Lahore.
The government ordered police and paramilitaries to stand down after the clashes and called on the army to intervene to restore order..
"We all now need to heal the fault lines that dharna (sit-in) has invoked on religious & sectarian basis & ensure it doesn't reoccur. It is a priority," tweeted Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal, without further details.