ISLAMABAD/LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani police have arrested dozens of members of a hard-line Islamist party that has blocked a main entrance to the capital since last week, a provincial spokesman said, in the latest confrontation between religious activists and authorities.
Hundreds of supporters of the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan party have blocked a main road to Islamabad since Friday, threatening violence if their demand that the minister of law be sacked is not met.
The group blames the minister, Zahid Hamid, for changes to an electoral oath that it says amounts to blasphemy. The government puts the issue down to a clerical error.
Pakistan’s blasphemy law has become a lightning rod for Islamists, especially since 2011 when the liberal governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was murdered by a bodyguard for questioning the law that mandates the death penalty for insulting Islam or the Prophet Mohammad.
A spokesman for the Punjab provincial government, Malik Muhammad Ahmed Khan, told Reuters the protests were a “serious inconvenience for people and disturbing public life” in the province that surrounds Islamabad.
“The Punjab government has detained dozens of Tehreek-e-Labaik’s activists from various districts,” he said.
Labaik spokesman Ejaz Ashrafi said in a statement police arrested hundreds of its workers in a countrywide swoop, mainly in the party’s base in Punjab.
Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal late on Monday urged the protesters to call off the sit-in, saying he hoped the government “wouldn’t be forced to take extreme steps”.
One security source said the protesters detained several policemen, seized their weapons and mistreated them.
“The abduction of the police is a heinous crime,” Iqbal said in a statement.
Police have accused the protesters, who are occupying the main artery between the capital and the nearby city of Rawalpindi, of throwing stones at them.
Fearing violence, the government has blocked several roads with shipping containers to corral the protesters, but that has caused hours-long traffic jams.
Minister of state for interior affairs Talal Chaudhry said the government had refused to accept the demand to sack the minister, and instead had ordered police to block any more Labaik supporters or leaders from joining the protest.
In 2007, a confrontation between authorities and supporters of radical preachers at an Islamabad mosque led to the death of more than 100 people when commandos stormed the complex.
“We’re still trying to resolve this issue through dialogue but the situation is becoming intolerable,” Chaudhry, told reporters.
“If this cannot be resolved, the roads will have to be cleared.”
Writing by Asif Shahzad; Editing by Robert Birsel