A policeman takes a picture of a car burned during clashes near the Faizabad junction in Islamabad on Sunday. Photo: Reuters
A policeman takes a picture of a car burned during clashes near the Faizabad junction in Islamabad on Sunday. Photo: Reuters

Islamist party activists clashed with security forces on Sunday for a second day on the outskirts of Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, burning vehicles before withdrawing to a protest camp they have occupied for more than two weeks, police said.

According to media reports, at least six people were killed the previous day when thousands of police and paramilitary moved to disperse a sit-in protest by the religious hardliners, who have blocked the main route into the capital from the neighboring garrison city of Rawalpindi.

More than 125 people were wounded in Saturday’s failed crackdown, and police superintendent Amir Niazi said 80 members of the security forces were among the casualties.

On Sunday morning, smoke billowed from the charred remains of a car and three motorcycles near the protest camp, where several thousand members of the Tehreek-e-Labaid party have gathered in defiance.

Police and paramilitary forces had surrounded the camp in the Faizabad district between the two cities, but no army troops were on the scene, despite a call the night before by the civilian government for the military to help restore order.

“We will move when we have orders,” Niazi, the police superintendent, said on Saturday. “What the protesters did yesterday was in no means was lawful. They attacked our forces.”

Activists from Tehreek-e-Labaik have blocked the main road into the capital for two weeks, accusing the law minister of blasphemy against Islam and demanding his dismissal and arrest.

“We are in our thousands. We will not leave. We will fight until end,” Tehreek-e-Labaik party spokesman Ejaz Ashrafi told Reuters on Saturday.

Tehreek-e-Labaik is one of two new ultra-religious political movements that became prominent in recent months.

While Islamist parties are unlikely to win a majority they could play a major role in elections that must be held by summer next year.

Tehreek-e-Laibak was born out of a protest movement lionizing Mumtaz Qadri, a bodyguard of the governor of Punjab province who gunned down his boss in 2011 over his call to reform strict blasphemy laws.

The party won a surprisingly strong 7.6 percent of the vote in a by-election in Peshawar last month.

The group launched their sit-in after the government amended the oath that election candidates must swear. The change was small, called a mistake, and quickly reversed, AFP reported.

But the demonstrators have linked it to blasphemy, a hugely sensitive charge that has often fuelled deadly violence in conservative Muslim Pakistan.

They are demanding the law minister, Zahid Hamid, resign over the amendment. As the protests spread on Saturday TLY clerics began calling for Pakistanis to come and defend the “honor of the Prophet”.

According to their Facebook page, they seek shariah law in Pakistan and will run in more elections, having already participated in a by-election in Lahore in September.

The sit-in became increasingly frustrating for commuters trapped for hours daily by the road blockade. As the judiciary blasted officials for their inertia, conspiracy theories swirled over who was supporting the small number of protesters.

On Saturday, nearly three weeks after the protests began, some 8,500 armed security personnel, including police and the paramilitary Rangers and Frontier Corps finally confronted the Islamists.

They were met with stubborn resistance, with police and protesters hurling rocks and demonstrators blocking more roads and setting vehicles alight, while calling for reinforcements.

The demonstrations also spread to Pakistan’s two biggest cities, Karachi and Lahore, as well as smaller towns countrywide before security officials were ordered to suspend the operation and the government sought help from the army.

When the sit-in first began authorities had insisted on peacefully negotiating with the protesters, as politicians eye elections in 2018.

Pakistan’s civilian government have long pulled their punches in such situations, fearing that a crackdown on the religious group would incite blowback – as it has in the past. Critics have warned this allows extremism to flourish.

Analyst Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center in Washington said the success of the protest was “highly disturbing”.

“It speaks to the clout and impunity enjoyed by religious hardliners in Pakistan,” he said.

Reuters, AFP