ISLAMABAD: Thousands of hardline Pakistani religious activists held protest rallies on Friday following sectarian violence last week which killed at least 11 people, amid unusually tight security across major cities.
Clashes erupted in Rawalpindi, which neighbours the capital Islamabad, a week ago when a procession by Shiite Muslims to mark the most important day of the mourning month of Muharram coincided with a sermon at a nearby Sunni mosque.
The groups attacked each other, TV cameramen and security forces, firing gunshots.
Schools, shops and restaurants were closed in the city on Friday while roads were deserted in both Rawalpindi and Islamabad.
A heavy contingent of police, paramilitary rangers and soldiers was deployed in major cities including Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar, Quetta and Multan.
In Rawalpindi, Maulana Ahmad Ludhianvi, who leads the sectarian Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) organisation said: “We know how to fight against enemies of Islam and we are fighting against them.”
Ludhianvi is a former leader of the sectarian group Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), formed in the 1980s and responsible for murdering hundreds of Shiites whom they consider heretics.
It is widely believed that the group renamed itself as ASWJ after being banned in 2002 and is still referred to by its members by its former name.
In the southwestern city of Quetta, up to 2,000 activists gathered to chant anti-Shiite slogans.
Local ASWJ leader Ramzan Mengal asked the government to declare Pakistan a Sunni state.
Similar scenes were seen in Peshawar, where some 4,000 people answered ASWJ’s call at the city’s Shobha Bazaar, while protesters in the eastern city of Lahore called for the government to restrict Shiite processions and confine them to their mosques.
In the largest city Karachi, 15,000 people attended an ASWJ rally, shouting anti-Shiite slogans.
All shops, restaurants and petrol stations in the city remained closed and roads were deserted amid a heavy deployment of police and paramilitary troops, an AFP reporter said.
Police have used shipping containers to block certain roads in the capital Islamabad and Rawalpindi, while the approaches to the diplomatic enclave, which houses foreign embassies, were sealed.
Umar Hayat Lalika, regional police chief for Rawalpindi told reporters that gatherings in the city have been banned and police would stop any attempts to hold rallies.
He said police had arrested 24 suspects including a few police officials, adding they were being interrogated.