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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Army called in to restore order as Pakistan demonstration turns violent  

Government sends in military to break up Islamist protests that have paralysed the capital Islamabad

An injured activist from a religious group is carried away from clashes with police in Islamabad. AFP/Aamir Qureshi
An injured activist from a religious group is carried away from clashes with police in Islamabad. AFP/Aamir Qureshi

Pakistan’s government sent the powerful military to the capital Islamabad on Saturday after deadly riots broke out when police moved to dislodge an Islamist protest that has paralysed the city for weeks.

At least one person was killed and 190 injured – some 137 of whom were security personnel – in fierce clashes as police tried to disperse the demonstration.

Security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets and demonstrators blocked roads and burned police vehicles around the site of the sit-in. As the violence intensified, protests sprouted in the major cities of Lahore and Karachi, as well as smaller towns across the country.

Authorities had been attempting to clear a relatively small protest by a little-known hardline group that had blocked a main highway into Islamabad since November 6, causing hours-long traffic snarls and enraging citizens.

It was not clear how many protesters remained in the streets of the capital late Saturday.

There had been roughly 2,000 as the operation began, but AFP reporters said dozens more were arriving throughout the day. Many were galvanised by posts on social media, despite apparent efforts to block sites including Twitter.

Police and paramilitary forces retreated following the clashes, with the Islamabad Capital Territory authorities making the request for the army to step in soon after.

An interior ministry order said the federal government had authorised the deployment of “sufficient troops” to “control law and order” in the city until further notice.

There was no immediate comment from military officials and no sign of troops in the streets late Saturday.

The demonstrations have threatened the beleaguered Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) government ahead of a general election due to be held next year.

The PML-N is already reeling from a Supreme Court decision to oust former prime minister Nawaz Sharif over graft allegations in the summer, while finance minister Ishaq Dar – also embroiled in a corruption scandal – has taken indefinite medical leave.

Mr Sharif had repeatedly clashed with the military, which has ruled Pakistan for half of its 70-year history.

Analysts and critics accused the government of bungling its response to the protests, with authorities hesitating for days over fears of violence as the city's commuters seethed in the traffic choked streets.

During the unrest Pakistan’s media regulator barred local TV channels from broadcasting live images.

Twitter said it was “monitoring” reports of the government blocking the site, adding “We... hope service will be fully restored soon”.