Cartoon protests rage in Pakistan

Tens of thousands of Pakistani Islamists wielding sticks and waving green flags have rallied in Karachi against cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, the latest in a wave of protests in which five people have died.

    Anti-Western feelings are running high in Pakistan

    A crowd of up to 50,000 rallied on Thursday in the main commercial district of the sprawling southern city, and some torched effigies of George Bush, the US president, and Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Danish prime minister.
       
    The protesters wearing green headbands shouted slogans of "Here I come, Oh Muhammad" and "Death to blasphemers" as thousands of policemen and paramilitary troops looked on.
       
    A branch of Citibank, the American financial institution, and an office of the German company Siemens hung black flags to mask their logos, as did a Christian hospital and several cinemas on the rally's route. 

    Tight security
       
    Armed troops were stationed on the roof-tops and roadsides of a city that has been consumed by religious, sectarian and ethnic violence over the past 20 years.
       
    Urging participants to stay peaceful, Mufti Muneeb-ur-Rehman, a leader of the rally, called on Pakistan to sever ties with European countries where cartoons were published. 

    Mob violence erupted during
    protests this week

    "The government should recall its ambassadors and send back ambassadors of these countries," Rehman said.

    The government's handling of the demonstrations is another illustration of the constant balancing act that Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani president, faces trying to assuage Islamist forces while pushing an agenda of "enlightened moderation" in his conservative Muslim country.
       
    Demonstrations have been held almost every day this month in Pakistan since European papers republished the cartoons, first published in Denmark in September.
       
    Muslims believe that it is blasphemous to depict Muhammad.
       
    Although Pakistan is the world's second-most populous Muslim nation, the protests grew in size only this week, and the worst violence occurred in Peshawar, a stronghold of the Islamist parties in North West Frontier Province. 

    Bush visit
       
    The Islamist parties have called for a nationwide strike on 3 March, around the time President Bush is expected to visit Pakistan, and Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador, said there was no change of plans, as yet.
       
    "The White House has reaffirmed the plans of the president to proceed with his visit," Crocker told journalists in Muzaffarabad, where US troops involved in a relief effort for Kashmiri earthquake victims handed over a mobile hospital unit to the Pakistan army.
      
    Officials have obliquely blamed hardline Islamist groups for stoking the violence.
       
    At least three people, including an eight-year-old-boy, were killed in protests on Wednesday and two died a day earlier.
       
    Students loyal to Jamaat-e-Islami, the country's most influential Islamist party, held a small rally on Thursday inside the main university in the eastern city of Lahore despite a ban by authorities on street protests.

    SOURCE: Reuters


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