Islamabad, Pakistan – Hundreds of defiant anti-blasphemy protesters continue to block a major highway into the Pakistani capital Islamabad on Sunday, after a security forces operation failed to clear the demonstration a day earlier, resulting in at least five deaths, hospital officials said.
More than 217 people have also been wounded in the clashes, which saw police fire tear gas, rubber-coated steel bullets and water cannon at protesters, who fought back with stones and metal rods.
The government called in the Pakistani military late on Saturday to help control the situation, but on Sunday no soldiers were visible among the security forces cordon established to contain the protesters.
Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi held a high-level security meeting with Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa on Sunday to discuss the situation.
The demonstrators have been blocking the Faizabad interchange, a major entry point into Islamabad, since November 8, demanding the resignation of the federal Law Minister Zahid Hamid over perceived blasphemy.
Since then, the protesters have blocked a major access route to the Pakistani capital and rebuffed several attempts at negotiation by the government.Led by cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, they hold Hamid responsible for a slight change in the wording of a recently passed electoral law, which they consider to soften the State’s position against Ahmadi Muslims.
Last week, the Islamabad High Court ordered the government to clear the protest as they were causing a huge inconvenience to commuters between Islamabad and its twin city of Rawalpindi.
After the earlier assault, security forces had backed off to a distant outer perimeter on Sunday.
“We are holding our positions until we receive further orders,” said Naeem Iqbal, an Islamabad police spokesperson.
At the Faizabad interchange, hundreds of protesters continued to occupy the road, gathered around a makeshift stage where protest leaders have been addressing them.
Many of the protesters were armed with sticks or metal rods, and some held riot shields snatched from the police during the unsuccessful operation to clear the area.
The entry points to the demonstration are policed by masked protesters wearing yellow construction helmets emblazoned with the name of Rizvi’s political party, the Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan.
Sitting on thatched mats or blankets, many of the protesters were reading the newspapers, whose front pages were dominated by news of the clashes on Saturday.
Pakistan’s media regulator lifted a ban on all television news channels on Sunday evening, after blocking transmissions for more than 24 hours. The regulator had said live coverage of the protest was hindering security operations.
Authorities also blocked access to social media sites Twitter, Facebook and Instagram nationwide, as some protesters had begun using them to broadcast live video from the demonstration.
Late on Saturday, several smaller protests had developed in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, as well as in Lahore, Gujranwala and Faisalabad.
Major highways in Punjab province, Pakistan’s most populous, remained closed due to the protests on Sunday, said Imran Ahmed Shah, a motorway police spokesperson.
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim