FAIZABAD, Pakistan (Reuters) - A hard-line Islamist party’s activists clashed with security forces in Pakistan’s capital and other cities on Sunday, officials said, paralysing Islamabad a day after a failed clearing operation killed several people and wounded some 150.
The religious activists, who accuse a government minister of blasphemy for a change in the wording of an electoral oath, burned several vehicles outside the capital before withdrawing in an uneasy stand-off at a protest camp they have occupied for two weeks, police said.
Despite orders from the civilian government to the army on Saturday night to help restore order, no military troops were at the scene around the protest camp in Faizabad, on the outskirts of the capital, witnesses said.
The military’s press department did not respond to queries about the government’s order.
On Sunday evening, Interior Minister Ahsan Iqabal said the paramilitary Rangers force would be authorized to handle the demonstrations.
At least seven people, including a policeman, were killed on the previous day, when several thousand security forces tried to disperse the protesters, according to local media reports and a provincial official
At least 187 people were wounded in Saturday’s clashes, said the provincial official who asked not to be named. Police superintendent Amir Niazi said at least 80 members of the security forces were among those wounded.
Throughout Sunday, baton-armed supporters of the Tehreek-e-Labaik party blocked several main highways, roads and arteries in major Pakistani cities, paralysing traffic and daily life.
In the eastern city of Lahore thousands of the Islamists camped outside the provincial parliament and attacked the house of a minister, prompting police to fire teargas shells, a Reuters reporter witnessed.
Just outside Lahore in Faisalabad city, their supporters attacked and tried to torch the house of another minister, police official Niaz Mirza said.
Smoke billowed from the charred remains of a car and three motorcycles burned on Sunday morning near the protest camp.
On Saturday, protesters also torched seven prison trucks, three police vans, a television van and a gas station - all of which were seen still smouldering the next day.
Activists from Tehreek-e-Labaik have blocked the main road into the capital for the past two weeks in protest after blaming the law minister Zahid Hamid for changing the wording in an electoral oath proclaiming Mohammad to be the last prophet of Islam from “I solemnly swear” to “I believe”, a change the party says amounts to blasphemy.
The government blamed the change on a clerical error and swiftly changed the language back.
“Our movement has spread across the country,” Tehreek-e-Labaik spokesman Ejaz Ashrafi told Reuters on Sunday.
“Thousands more people have joined us. We will remain here until our demands are met.”
Led by cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, Labaik is one of two new ultra-religious political movements that have risen to prominence in recent months. Labaik, which campaigns to maintain Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws, won a surprisingly strong 6 percent and 7.6 percent of the votes in two recent by-elections.
While Islamist parties are unlikely to win a majority they could play a major role in elections that must be held by the summer of next year.
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.
By Sunday afternoon orders had been issued to lift a block imposed the day before on private TV stations and social media services.
After Saturday’s failed crackdown by police, the government called for military assistance “for law and order duty according to the constitution”.
However, there has been no public statement from the military in response and no sign that any troops had left their barracks.
On Saturday before the government order, Pakistan’s army chief called on the civilian government to end the protest while “avoiding violence from both sides”, the military press wing said.
The ruling party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif - who was disqualified by the Supreme Court in July and is facing a corruption trial - has a history of difficulties with the military, which in 1999 launched a coup to oust Sharif from an earlier term.
Minister of Interior Iqbal said on Sunday that the operation wasn’t carried out under his supervision, saying city police acted directly on court orders.
“I was of the view that we should give negotiations two, three more days,” he told local Geo TV.
Iqbal had said on Saturday the protests were part of a conspiracy to weaken the government, which is now run by Sharif’s allies under a new prime minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi.
“There are attempts to create a chaos in (the) country,” Iqbal said on state-run Pakistan TV.
Writing by Kay JohnsonEditing by Alex Richardson, Greg Mahlich