ISLAMABAD (AP) — Police early Saturday launched an operation to clear Islamist protesters from an intersection linking the Pakistani capital with the garrison city of Rawalpindi, sparking other demonstrators across the country to take to the streets in solidarity and bringing major cities to a virtual standstill.
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 had 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 near 200 people were injured, most of them police.
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. The situation prompted the country's regulatory body for electronic media to take TV broadcasts off the air. Key social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were also blocked. Government officials were not immediately available for comment on the situation.
Taking note of a worsening situation, military chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa telephoned Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi to call for the peaceful handling of the protest, according to a tweet by military spokesman Maj. Gen Asif Ghafoor.
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 a water cannon to disperse the protesters. But witnesses said at one point a police van came under attack and was set on fire after two police officers aimed assault rifles at protesters.
Police lobbed tear gas canisters and deployed the water cannon while surrounding and arresting dozens of protesters who resisted by throwing rocks. The riot police used batons against protesters who resisted.
The government had made several attempts to resolve the stalemate through negotiations with the protesters, who demanded the resignation of a law minister over an omitted reference to the Prophet Muhammad in a parliamentary bill. The minister, Zahid Hamid, apologized for the omission — a phrase saying that Muhammad is the last prophet in Islam — saying it was a clerical error that was later corrected.
But protest leaders were adamant and refused to clear the intersection unless the law minister resigned.
Saturday's action came after a court ordered an end to the protest because it was disrupting daily life.
Officials said that 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's main hospital, said 186 people were brought from the rally with minor injuries and respiratory problems. He said among them were 106 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 could 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 face difficulty clearing the crucial intersection as more and more supporters joined protesters at the site, a bridge between the capital and Rawalpindi. Police and civil administrators met to formulate a strategy to resolve the situation.
State television stations reported that security forces had temporarily suspended their operations. They reported that police arrested around 150 protesters, some with knives and pistols.
Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal told state television that the government had shown patience in dealing with the protesters.
"The administration is taking action under court order but still we are open for talks with them," he said, referring to the protesters. Ahsan said that some among the protesters wanted to create chaos and destabilization in the country.
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.
In Karachi, groups of people gathered at three crucial venues blocking streets in protest against the police action in Islamabad. When police used tear gas to disperse them amid the traffic rush hours, protesters threw stones wounding 20 people, including two journalists.
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, as well as in southern city of Hyderabad, to show solidarity with the Islamabad protesters.
In Lahore, an unruly mob torched a vehicle and damaged others with stoning and staged sit-ins at four key areas in the city.
Malik Mohammad Ahmed, the spokesman for Punjab government, said enraged protesters in Rawalpindi attacked the residence of the former interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar, damaging the main gate. He added that they wounded lawmaker Javed Latif in Shaikhupura, hitting him in the head with a stone, and that a furious crowd attacked Law Minister Zahid Hamid's villa in Pasroor, ransacking the place.
Associated Press writers Zaheer Babar in Lahore, Pakistan, Adil Jawad in Karachi, Pakistan, and Iram Asim in Multan, Pakistan, contributed to this report.