Pakistani security forces refrained Sunday from cracking down again on an Islamist sit-in, now in its third week, after violence the previous day killed six people and wounded scores.
The Islamists protesters rallied near Islamabad in support of a religious party demanding the resignation of the country's law minister over an omitted reference to Islam's Prophet Muhammad in a parliamentary bill, as solidarity protests spread across the country.
Encouraged by the countrywide protests in their support, a Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah party leader called for a countrywide general strike on Monday against what he called "atrocities" committed by police on Saturday.
Over 3,000 protesters gathered Sunday at the Faizabad intersection, the sit-in's epicenter, which links the capital Islamabad with the garrison city of Rawalpindi. Some, angry over the police's show of force the previous day, torched a car, three motorcycles and a guard post erected near the rally site Sunday. No casualties were reported.
Pakistani riot police and paramilitary troops were deployed nearby — apparently in preparation for another crackdown after security forces failed to disperse the demonstrators on Saturday. As the day wore on, however, it became apparent they would refrain from any further action to clear the sit-in.
The law minister targeted by the group, Zahid Hamid, has apologized for the omission in the parliamentary bill — a phrase saying that Muhammad is the last prophet in Islam — and said it was a clerical error that was later corrected. But Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah — a coalition of Barlevi groups that follow the Sunni Hanafi tradition — little-known before the sit-in, is adamant that Hamid resign.
"This sit-in and protests all over the country are not going to end unless our talks proved successful and our demands are met," said Pir Mohammad Afzal Qadri, the leader of Aalmi Tanzeem Ahl el-Sunnat, one of the Barlevi groups of the religious party.
Qadri said the party will fully participate in the 2018 general elections. ``We will gain political strength to impose the system of Prophet Muhammad in the country,'' he said. Qadri appealed to traders to close their business on Monday to protest against the police's tactics. Fearing trouble, several state and private education institutions across the country announced that they would close and postpone exams on Monday.
On Saturday, security forces failed to disperse the protesters when riot police moved in with tear gas and batons. Hospital officials said nearly 200 people were hurt, most of them policemen. They confirmed six people were killed in clashes with police at the Islamabad rally. Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal said that the deaths were not because of excessive police force but were the result of a mob attacking the residence of former the interior minister's home and clashing with guards there.
The government had asked the army for help on Saturday but the military questioned the need for army troops, saying enough police and paramilitary troops were available.
Army Chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa met on Sunday with Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi to discuss the situation. It appeared after the meeting that the government will attempt another round of negotiations with the protesters at the Islamabad sit-in. The government has since removed police from the site and assigned paramilitary rangers in their place.
Also after the top brass meeting, Pakistan's commission for regulating electronic media restored the broadcasts of private TV stations following a reminder of guidelines. The broadcasts went off the air Saturday and much of Sunday allegedly because the stations had violated a government policy banning live coverage of security operations.
Elsewhere Sunday, in Faisalabad, an enraged mob clashed with police in an attempt to attack the residence of provincial law minister Rana Sanaullah. Police officer Ather Ismail said five protesters were wounded as police retaliated with tear gas and batons. The previous day enraged mobs had attacked the residence of the former interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar, in Rawalpindi, ransacked the villa of Law Minister Hamid in the town of Pasroor, and wounded lawmaker Javed Latif in Shaikhupura.
Sunday also saw supporters of the Islamist party block roads and stage sit-ins for a second day in the cities of Karachi, Lahore, Multan and others, in a show of solidarity with the protesters in Islamabad.
Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, was completely shut down for a second day Sunday as hundreds of protesters blocked over a dozen important intersections. They were largely peaceful but occasionally younger men hurled stones at the police, though elders quickly stopped them.
The biggest of almost two dozen rallies scattered across Lahore, the provincial capital of Punjab, was near the Punjab Assembly building, where some 3,000 protesters gathered peacefully.
Cleric Ashraf Jalali said the protesters will not leave until their demand for Hamid's resignation is met. "We are peaceful but ready to face any kind of operation [by the police],'' he said.
In Multan, some 5,000 Islamist supporters marched through the city, chanting slogans against the government. Hundreds of protesters blocked roads elsewhere in Multan and in some places set car tires on fire. The public bus service was also suspended in Multan, Rawalpindi, Lahore and Islamabad.
Shah Mohammad Qureshi, a moderate opposition leader, criticized the government, saying it had mishandled the situation.
"This government has blocked the entire country to clear one intersection in Islamabad," Qureshi said.