Six killed as police struggle to clear Islamabad protests

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ISLAMABAD: Six people were killed and another 200 injured Saturday as police launched an operation to clear protesters from an intersection linking Islamabad with Rawalpindi, doctors at local hospitals said.

The protest triggered demonstrators to take to the streets of other cities across the country in solidarity, bringing them to a virtual standstill.

Dr. Masood Safdar of Benazir Bhutto Hospital said five civilians arrived dead from bullets wounds. Dr. Tariq Niazi of the Holy Family Hospital confirmed the death of a young man who was shot in head during the violence at Faizabad intersection and the surrounding area.

Hundreds of police in riot gear moved against the supporters of the Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah party early Saturday after a deadline expired at midnight.

The police action and reaction from protesters, who camped out at the venue for the last 20 days, sent scores of injured police and protesters to hospitals with injuries caused by stoning and respiratory problems from tear gas.

Hospital officials said over 150 people were injured, most of them police.

An Islamabad police spokesman confirmed that a policeman was killed in the fighting after he was struck in the head by a rock, and an AFP journalist saw what appeared to be the body of at least one demonstrator lying on the road in the capital.

News of the police intervention spread quickly, prompting sympathizers in cities round the country to take to the streets in a show of solidarity with the Islamabad protesters.

Senior police officer Ismatullah Junejo said police were swiftly clearing the venue as some 300 protesters ignored the final warning to disperse.

He said none of the police carried firearms to avoid loss of life, instead using only tear gas and water cannon to disperse the protesters. But witnesses said at one point when a police van came under attack and was set on fire two police officers aimed assault rifles at protesters.

Police lobbed tear gas canisters and used the water cannon while surrounding and arresting dozens of protesters who resisted by throwing rocks. The riot police used batons against protesters who resisted.

Saturday’s action came after a court ordered the protest to stop because it was disrupting daily life.

Officials said more than 150 people, including police, were injured in the rock throwing and taken to three hospitals in the area. Dr. Mohammad Altaf Hussain, at Islamabad main hospital said 136 people were brought from the rally with minor injuries and respiratory problems. He said among them were 90 police. More than 20 injured were taken to other hospitals.

Television footage showed police initially taking control of the bridge where the protesters were camped out. Some protesters can be seen throwing stones at police. The images showed an area engulfed in thick smoke from tear gas and black smoke from burned tents.

Later in the morning, seminary students from Rawalpindi reinforced the protesters who pushed back police and Frontier Constabulary forces. Witnesses said a group of baton-carrying protesters snatched a tear gas gun and a few shells from a constable and lobbed them at police.

Enraged protesters also torched three police vans, two civilian vehicles, three two motorcycles and damaged two television station vehicles used for live coverage. They also ransacked a newly built metro bus terminal near the venue.

Later in the day, security forces appeared to have difficulty clearing the crucial intersection as more and more supporters joined protesters at the site, a bridge between the capital and Rawalpindi.

State television stations reported that security forces suspended the operation for some time. It reported that police arrested around 150 protesters, some with knives and pistols.

Some protesters who escaped the operation later gathered at a main street in Rawalpindi blocking it and suspending traffic by throwing stones at moving vehicles.

Protest in Other Cities

Fresh protests were also springing up in other cities.

Police in Karachi said some 200 protesters were blockading a major road in the southern port, with at least nine injured people — including three with gunshot wounds — brought to hospital, according to doctors.

Markets and shops were closing in the megacity, Pakistan’s commercial hub, as alarmed residents stayed inside while clerics called for more demonstrators to come and help protect the dignity of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH).

Protesters in groups of various sizes also took to the streets in Lahore, Faisalabad, Multan, Khanewal, Layyah, Vihari, Dera Ghazi Khan and others cities in Punjab province and in the northwestern city of Peshawar and in southern city of Hyderabad to show solidarity with the Islamabad protesters.

‘We Won’t Leave’

“We are in our thousands. We will not leave. We will fight until end,” Tehreek-e-Labaik party spokesman Ejaz Ashrafi told Reuters by telephone from the scene.

Tehreek-e-Labaik blames the minister, Zahid Hamid, for changes to an electoral oath that it says amounts to blasphemy. The government puts the issue down to a clerical error.

Fearing violence, the government has blocked several roads with shipping containers to corral the protesters, but that has caused hours-long traffic jams in and around the capital.

The government had tried to negotiate an end to the sit-in, fearing violence during a crackdown.

135 injured shifted to PIMS

Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS) on Saturday said that so far 135 injured persons had been
shifted to the hospital on receiving different injuries from protesters of sit-in at Faizabad Interchange during police operation.

Talking to media persons, Administrator PIMS Dr Altaf Hussain said that these injured persons included 55 policemen, 35 FC personnel and 45 civilians, who mainly received injuries on stone-throwing of
protesters.

He said that 18 injured persons had been discharged after giving necessary medical treatment while all injured persons were stable and none of any them was in critical condition.

Meanwhile, three injured persons have also been shifted to Poly Clinic hospital while 14 injured have been moved to Benazir Bhutto Hospital Rawalpindi and three to Holy Family Hospital Rawalpindi.

It is pertinent to mention her that both major hospitals of federal capital Federal Government Poly Clinic (FGPC) and PIMS have declared high alert and beds have been allocated beside sufficient quantity of medicines.

Similarly, ambulances have been moved to the Faizabad to shift injured person to the hospitals and other medical services during operation.

Bungled Response

Analysts and critics have accused the government of bungling its response to the protest, and allowing a minor issue to grow into a headline-grabbing and potentially dangerous situation.

“Politically driven procrastination has its own costs and this is what the government is paying,” analyst Imtiaz Gul told AFP.

The government delays had “allowed all like-minded people to organise and prepare for the protests,” he said, adding that whether or not the government is forced to ask for military aid “it has already become explosive”.

Another political analyst Hasan Askari said “these people already had a grudge against the government and the government just provided them the opportunity to vent out their anger,” said.