Supporters of Mr. Rizvi’s political party, Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan, have been camped at the Faizabad Interchange, blocking the main road from the capital, Islamabad, to neighboring Rawalpindi. They refused to clear the road until the government agreed to remove the law minister, Zahid Hamid, over the changed oath.
Thousands of Pakistani police officers in riot gear fired tear gas and rubber bullets on Saturday as they tried to clear out supporters of a firebrand cleric who have paralyzed the Pakistani capital for weeks with a protest on a main highway.
Authorities said at least six protesters were killed and 200 people — including dozens of police officers and paramilitary troops — were injured as stone-throwing crowds fought with police for control of a highway intersection. Clashes also broke out in other cities, including Lahore and Karachi, with officials saying at least 150 protesters have been arrested.
As plumes of smoke rose from the site of the highway clashes, officials in Islamabad requested the help of the Army to “control the law-and-order situation” in the capital, according the Ministry of Interior. The ministry said that the military authorities would determine the number of troops to be deployed.
The demonstrations began three weeks ago after the release of a proposed new version of an oath to be taken by lawmakers that omitted mention of the Prophet Muhammad. The protesters, many of them supporters of the cleric, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, an outspoken Islamist, have demanded that the law minister resign for the omission, which they called blasphemy.
As the standoff has escalated, protest leaders have stepped up their demands, and are now calling for the entire cabinet to resign.
The omission in the new oath was quickly reversed, but Mr. Rizvi’s supporters have continued to accuse the law minister of blasphemy — a highly combustible issue in Pakistan, and one that has repeatedly led to acts of violence.
Saturday, Mr. Rizvi rallied his supporters from atop a trailer, shouting through a microphone and accusing the authorities of working on behalf of the United States.
“Trump says change Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Are you acting on his orders?” he asked the police.
At one point, the electronic media regulating authority took all television news networks off the air in most parts of the country, and Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were also inaccessible, amid concerns that live coverage of the police action was inflaming religious sentiments.
The violence and spreading protests present a grave challenge to the country’s governing party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz.
At least 8,000 police officers in riot gear and a separate paramilitary police force that had encircled the approximately 2,000 protesters began trying to clear the protesters staging a sit-in on the main interchange in the city early on Saturday.
Using water cannons, canisters of tear gas and slings, they managed to wrest back control of a large area. Dozens of tents burned. Thick smoke and tear gas could be seen from afar as protesters and police officers clashed, each side using stones and batons.
But by midday, the balance seemed to have shifted back to the protesters, who remained in control of the main part of their camp. Dozens of officers were among the injured, officials said.
As the protesters held their ground, Mr. Rizvi grew bolder and urged his supporters to bring the whole country to a standstill. Mr. Rizvi’s speeches were broadcast on Facebook Live and helped to galvanize his supporters across the country.
By Saturday evening, officials said the operation against the protesters in Islamabad had been suspended, and they denied that a police officer had died during the clashes, after local and foreign reports had published news of the death, attributing it to a police spokesman.
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Protesters also stormed the home of Mr. Hamid in Pasrur in Sialkot District. Neither the law minister nor his relatives were present at the time of the attack.
Another lawmaker from the governing party, Mian Javid Latif, was attacked by protesters and injured in Sheikhupura District, the local news media reported. His condition was stable, they said. Local media outlets reported that protesters in Rawalpindi had damaged the entrance of the house of Nisar Ali Khan, a former interior minister.
The Islamabad high court last week ordered the government to clear the interchange. But it has been reluctant to use force, fearful that violence could give more oxygen to the hard-line Islamists.
The government has refused to fire Mr. Hamid, and negotiations for a peaceful end to the protests have been unsuccessful. Reversing the change in the law has failed to assuage the anger of religious leaders, especially Mr. Rizvi, who has used the controversy to expand his influence and outreach.
The authorities said that protests had closed a road that connects Islamabad to the eastern city of Lahore, where hundreds of protesters burned tires and scuffled with the police. There were clashes in the southern port city of Karachi, according to media reports.
Pakistan’s politically powerful Army has urged the government to move cautiously. According to a military spokesman, the Army chief of staff, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, called Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi on Saturday.
He urged him “to handle the protest peacefully, avoiding violence from both sides as it is not in the national interest,” the spokesman, Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, said.
Afrasiab Khattak, a prominent politician and newspaper columnist, said in an interview that the protests represented a coordinated effort to topple the government.
“It is not a spontaneous protest,” he said. “It is a very well-planned move by the religious right and their supporters in the state system to use the clashes in Islamabad as a detonator for riots in other parts of the country, especially Punjab Province.”
Punjab is the country’s most prosperous and populous province and the political power base of Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister and leader of the current governing party. Mr. Sharif resigned in July, after the Supreme Court disqualified him from holding office following a corruption probe.
He remains popular, however, and his party has ruled out calling for early elections, a demand by opposition political parties.
Mr. Khattak said the protesters belonged to the Barelvi sect of Sunni Muslims, who had formed the bulk of Mr. Sharif’s support. “But now, the Barelvis have been pitted against Sharif’s party,” he said. “It is the endgame.”
Source: New York Times