Islamabad, Pakistan– The Pakistani army has been called in to restore order to the capital after clashes between anti-blasphemy protesters and police left at least 174 people injured.
Thousands of riot police and paramilitary personnel on Saturday fired tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon at the protesters in an attempt to dislodge them from a major highway into Islamabad.
The protesters, numbering as many as 2,000, stood their ground, fighting back by throwing stones and beating police with sticks and metal rods in running battles that continued throughout the day.
The protesters have been blocking the Islamabad expressway, the main road into the capital, since November 8, demanding the resignation of Federal Law Minister Zahid Hamid over a perceived softening of the state’s position on blasphemy.
Last week, a Pakistani court ordered the government to clear the sit-in protest, prompting a series of meetings between protest leaders and the government to attempt to reconcile differences.
By midday, the demonstrators appeared to have beaten back the police to roadblocks located several kilometres away from the site of the protest.
“We will remain deployed but are holding our positions for now,” Khalid Khattak, Islamabad’s police chief, told Al Jazeera. “We do not want to cause further casualties [and] will adopt a new strategy soon.”
At least 111 of those injured in the clashes were members of the police or other security forces, said Dr Farrukh Kamal, an official at the PIMS government hospital where most of the wounded were being treated.
Official figures on how many protesters had been arrested during the crackdown were not immediately available.
Caught in the crossfire
Liaquat Kazmi, 30, was standing outside his home near the Faizabad interchange, where the protest is centred, when he was manhandled and beaten by police as the crackdown got under way.
“I am just a regular citizen, I have no connection to the protesters or to the police,” he said from his hospital bed. “Without asking any questions as to who I was, [the police] brutally beat me, and then one of them shot me at close range with a rubber bullet.”
Kazmi suffered a serious wound to the chest, but doctors said he would make a full recovery.
Safoor Akram, 23, a police constable from the nearby town of Rawat, was among those tasked with being the first wave in the clearing operation against the protesters.
“We were surrounded by those maulvis [religious leaders]. First, they stole our mobiles and wallets, and then they beat us mercilessly with sticks and their fists,” he told Al Jazeera.
Akram and two other policemen were then taken hostage and held by the protesters for five hours, he said. They were eventually released.
As the crackdown got under way, Pakistan’s media regulator ordered all television news channels other than the state broadcaster taken off air, saying their live coverage was compromising the security operation.
Shortly thereafter, access to social media sites Twitter and Facebook was also cut across the country.
Protesters digging in
By nightfall, small protests had spread to other cities, with gatherings and limited clashes reported from Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, as well as in Lahore, Gujranwala and Faisalabad.
In Islamabad, the protesters appeared to have dug in for the night, with more than 1,000 gathered around a makeshift stage, raising slogans of solidarity with Islam’s Prophet and vowing not to back down.
The smell of tear gas hung heavy in the air, hours after the last shell had been fired from the day’s onslaught.
The road that has become the protesters home over the last two weeks was strewn with stones and other detritus from the earlier battle. Among the crowd, many protesters stood armed with sticks and rods, policing the entry points of the demonstration.
Nearby, many others were huddled around small fires in makeshift tents, as night drew in.
Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter @AsadHashim