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Clashes as Pakistani police try to disperse Islamist sit-in

Pakistani riot police face off with protesters of the Tehreek-i-Labaik Yah Rasool Allah Pakistan (TLYRAP) religious group during a protest in Islamabad on November 25, 2017. Pakistani forces fired rubber bullets and lobbed tear gas at protesters in Islamabad on November 25 as they moved to disperse an Islamist sit-in that has virtually paralysed the country’s capital for weeks. The roughly 8,500 elite police and paramilitary troops in riot gear began clearing the 2,000 or so demonstrators soon after dawn, with nearby roads and markets closed. / AFP PHOTO / AAMIR QURESHI

Pakistani forces clashed violently with hardline religious protesters in Islamabad Saturday, with at least one person killed, more than 130 injured and small demonstrations spreading to other cities after police cracked down on an Islamist sit-in.

Thousands of security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets as the demonstrators blocked roads and burned police vehicles around the site of the sit-in, which has choked a main highway and virtually paralysed the capital for nearly three weeks.

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.

At least 139 injured people have been taken to the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences in Islamabad, a spokesman from the hospital told AFP, adding that 93 of them were members of the security forces.

The sit-in by the little-known hardline group called Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah Pakistan (TLYRAP) has blocked the main road into the capital used by thousands of commuters since November 6, causing hours-long traffic snarls and enraging commuters.

The protesters, who before Saturday numbered some 2,000 people, are demanding that Pakistan’s law minister Zahid Hamid resign 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.

Smoke and tear gas filled the air in the ongoing, hours-long bid by some 8,500 police as well as paramilitary Rangers and Frontier Corps forces to clear the demonstrators, which began soon after dawn.

AFP reporters at the site said dozens more demonstrators were arriving.

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.

Smaller demonstrations were breaking out in Lahore and other cities, according to local media.

As the clashes intensified, Pakistan’s powerful military chief phoned the prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi to urge the situation be handled “peacefully,” military spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor said on Twitter.

General Qamar Javed Bajwa called for both sides to avoid violence “as it is not in national interest”.

Pakistan’s media regulator barred local TV channels from broadcasting live images from the scene, though protesters were still using Facebook Live and other social media.

Bungled response
Authorities have hesitated to act against the sit-in, citing fears of violence as the demonstrators have vowed to die for their cause.

But their weeks of inaction have sparked the wrath of residents as well as Pakistan’s judiciary, with the Supreme Court issuing a blistering statement earlier in the week and the Islamabad High Court threatening to hold officials in contempt.

The sit-in had previously cost the life of an eight-year-old child whose ambulance could not reach a hospital in time due to the blocked roads.

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”.

Other analysts have warned that the sit-in set an alarming precedent, that anti-state forces could choke the capital at any time and “bring the government to its knees”.

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