ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s capital was tense on Sunday after attempts to disperse anti-blasphemy protests by Islamists ended in deadly violence, as the military appeared hesitant to respond to a government call for help.
Hundreds, possibly thousands, of demonstrators were still occupying roads and intersections connecting Islamabad with neighbouring Rawalpindi, with protesters posting videos late Saturday night of funeral prayers being recited at a sit-in.
Demonstrators have blocked a major highway, paralysing Islamabad for weeks. Security forces had moved to clear it Saturday but were met with stubborn resistance by protesters who torched vehicles and threw stones.
At least six people were killed and around 230 injured before security forces retreated on Saturday. Hospitals said most of the wounded had been released on Sunday, with only around 20 still needing treatment.
An interior ministry order said the federal government had authorised the deployment of “sufficient troops” to “control law and order” in the capital until further notice.
But early on Sunday there was no official military response and no sign of armoured vehicles or soldiers on the streets. A military spokesman declined repeated requests for comment.
Civil-military relations have long been fraught in Pakistan, with the military ruling the country for nearly half of its 70-year history.
Private television broadcasts remained blocked and social media sites were restricted, sparking confusion about the state of protests and how authorities planned to respond to the spiralling situation.
“I don’t have any clue what is happening,” Naeem, a worried resident told Agence France-Presse in an Islamabad market.
“Only Allah is running this country,” he added, complaining that the only channel working was Pakistan state TV – and it was airing a children’s program.
“Police, admin. should be more bold on decision making next time. This Incompetent govt. has made blunder On everything,” wrote Shadman Sharar Shohan on Facebook.
The little known Islamist group at the centre of the protests are demanding the resignation of Pakistan’s law minister Zahid Hamid over a hastily-abandoned amendment to the oath that election candidates must swear.
Demonstrators have linked it to blasphemy—a highly contentious issue in Muslim Pakistan—and claim the oath was softened to enable the participation of Ahmadis, a long-persecuted Islamic minority sect.
Dodged many bullets
The violent clashes spurred similar protests in major cities and towns nationwide.
Police in Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city, said some 200 protesters had blockaded a major road in the southern port on Saturday, with at least 27 injured—including 22 people with gunshot wounds—brought to hospital, according to doctors.
Police cleared some smaller sit-ins in the port city early on Sunday, but more than a dozen protests continued across the city, an AFP reporter there said.
In Lahore, the capital of Punjab province and the country’s second largest city, police had closed off a main road because of the protests.
Analysts said the government had allowed what was a relatively small protest by a little known group to grow from a minor issue into a headline-grabbing and potentially dangerous situation.
The violence represents the latest in a series of blows to the beleaguered PakistanMuslim League (Nawaz) government as general elections approach in 2018.
In July, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was ousted from power by the courts over graft allegations, while finance minister Ishaq Dar—also accused of corruption – has taken indefinite medical leave.
“This government has dodged many bullets over the last few years, but it certainly faces a particularly daunting test right now,” analyst Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center in Washington told AFP.
Its ability to survive “depends on the trajectory of the protests,” he said.