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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 16 August 2018

No sign of military intervention as Pakistan protests grow

Attempt to break up sit-in by religious hardliners in Islamabad has triggered bigger protests in more cities

A riot policeman stands guard beside burnt police vehicles in Islamabad on November 26, 2017, a day after clashes with religious hardliners who resisted attempts to break up a weeks-long protest in Pakistan's capital. Sohail Shahzad / EPA
A riot policeman stands guard beside burnt police vehicles in Islamabad on November 26, 2017, a day after clashes with religious hardliners who resisted attempts to break up a weeks-long protest in Pakistan's capital. Sohail Shahzad / EPA

Thousands more protesters massed in Pakistan's major cities on Sunday after attempts to disperse an Islamist rally in Islamabad ended in deadly violence, with little sign of the military responding to a government appeal for help.

Groups of chanting demonstrators, many armed with sticks, were arriving to occupy roads between Islamabad and neighbouring Rawalpindi.

Thousands more were on the streets than when police and paramilitaries began a bungled operation to clear them a day earlier.

At least 4,750 were in Pakistan's biggest city Karachi, according to traffic officials, up from roughly 200 the day before. In the cultural capital Lahore an estimated 3,400 were occupying main roads.

Reports said the protests had also spread to other cities and towns across the country.

The numbers are still relatively small by Pakistani standards but have grown swiftly. The situation has become more charged since authorities moved to clear the roughly 2,000 people who have blocked a major highway in Islamabad since November 6.

They were met with stubborn resistance by protesters who torched vehicles and threw stones. At least seven people were killed and around 230 injured before security forces retreated.

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

But more than 18 hours after the order was released there was no official military response and no sign of armoured vehicles or soldiers on the streets. A military spokesman declined repeated requests for comment.

Civil-military relations have long been fraught in Pakistan, with the military ruling the country for nearly half of its 70-year history.

The little-known Islamist group at the centre of the protests, Tehreek-e-Labaik, is demanding the resignation of Pakistan's law minister Zahid Hamid over a hastily abandoned amendment to the oath which election candidates must swear.

Demonstrators have linked the issue to blasphemy - a highly contentious matter in Muslim Pakistan that has fuelled violence many times before.

"I don't care if my wife and child go hungry, I don't care if they die of hunger, for me nothing matters more than the honour of my Prophet," said Riaz Shah, a labourer from Lahore who has been at the sit-in since it began.

Showing off broken teeth and a broken finger he said he received in Saturday's clashes, Mr Shah dismissed fears of military intervention, saying the army "would not come here and dishonour the Prophet".

He vowed to stay until the protesters' demands are met.

At a main stage set up at the centre of the sit-in, demonstrators were playing religious songs as more groups arrived. A military helicopter flew overhead briefly but otherwise few members of the security forces were in sight.

State schools and universities across Punjab province, Pakistan's most populous, would stay closed on Monday and Tuesday, an education official said, while universities in Karachi also announced closures.

Private television broadcasts remained blocked and social media sites were restricted, sparking confusion about the state of protests and how authorities planned to respond to the spiralling situation.

"I don't have any clue what is happening," Naeem, a resident of Islamabad.

"Only Allah is running this country," he added, complaining that the only channel working was Pakistan state TV - and it was airing a children's programme.

"People's businesses have been destroyed, people are unable to go on their jobs, to hospitals, they are not sending their children to schools," said Maqbool Ahmed, another resident.

"The army should not only contain the situation but disperse them up by beating them with clubs," he added.

The violence is the latest in a series of blows to the beleaguered Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) government ahead of a general election next year.

In July the party's leader Nawaz Sharif was ousted as prime minister by the courts over graft allegations, while finance minister Ishaq Dar - also accused of corruption - has taken indefinite medical leave.

Analysts said the government had allowed a relatively small protest by an obscure group to grow into a headline-grabbing and potentially dangerous situation.

"This government has dodged many bullets over the last few years, but it certainly faces a particularly daunting test right now," said Michael Kugelman, an analyst at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington DC.

Its ability to survive "depends on the trajectory of the protests," he said.

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