As street tensions simmer, Pakistani law minister apologizes to protesters
The apology came as Pakistani forces moved against protesters blocking a key road in the capital Sunday after demonstrators attacked a police checkpoint, state media reported.
The Pakistan Rangers have taken a position close to the Faizabad sit-in in Islamabad after protesters set ablaze a car and four motorbikes, witnesses said.
The rangers are an armed paramilitary force under the command of Pakistan’s military.
At least two people have died and more than 250 others been injured in street demonstrations, according to hospital officials.
Protesters are demanding Hamid’s resignation for what they consider blasphemy after parliamentary bills were amended, weakening rules that require lawmakers to reference the Prophet Mohammed when taking their oaths. The government has apologized and denied making such changes, calling them clerical mistakes.
After reading the oath in a video shared on social media, Hamid said:: “I further want to say I love Hazrat Muhammad (PBUH) from the depth of my heart.”
He added: “My family and I are prepared to lay down our lives for the honor and sanctity of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).” PBUH is an acronym for Peace Be Upon Him.
Protesters on Saturday tried to break into his home, police in the Punjabi city of Sialkot said. Hamid and his family weren’t home at the time.
Protesters had been blocking a key road connecting Islamabad and the neighboring city of Rawalpindi since November 6.
Law enforcement moved in to break up the crowd Saturday following the expiration of a Thursday deadline to disperse issued by Pakistan Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal.
Video from the scene showed officers carrying sticks and firing tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters. Groups of protesters could be seen throwing rocks with their hands or using slingshots.
Police said about 100 protesters were arrested.
Three smaller protests broke out in Rawalpindi on roads leading to the capital, a journalist there said. The motorway between Rawalpindi and the eastern city of Lahore was closed, as authorities feared more protesters might try to enter the city to support demonstrators in the capital.
Protests also broke out in Lahore and the southern port city of Karachi, local media reported.
Military asks for clarification
The Interior Ministry on Saturday issued an internal order calling for a “sufficient number” of Pakistan army troops to help establish “law and order.”
The move, conferred under constitutional powers, was requested by the Islamabad Capital Territory Administration.
In response, the military sent a letter Sunday stating that while it was “fully ready” to assist the government handle the law and order situation it required some clarification before taking any action.
“As you are aware that employment of army implies application of a force which is traditionally not just used for dispersal of crowd/ protestors but to quell commotion. Its employment needs to be clarified,” the letter said.
The police operation in Islamabad was suspended Sunday and violence also ebbed in Karachi and Lahore, though protests continued.
Bus service disrupted
Meanwhile the Islamabad protest continues to impact traffic. A section of the Pindi Bhattian motorway has been closed for security reasons and the National highway is also blocked in several locations, PTV reports.
The government has said that schools will remain suspended Monday and Tuesday in Punjab “due to the prevailing law and order situation in the Country.’
Some bus services have also been canceled in Rawalpindi, Lahore and the city of Multan, CNN affiliate GEO TV reported.
Tehreek-e Labbaik Pakistan movement
The hardline Islamist movement Tehreek-e Labbaik Pakistan has been spearheading demonstrations.
The movement was formed by followers of Mumtaz Qadri, who was executed last year for shooting and killing Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer in 2011. Qadri allegedly killed Taseer because the governor spoke out against the country’s blasphemy law, which makes insulting Islam a crime punishable by death.
Since news of Qadri’s death emerged, Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan has been attracting political and religious support through the country.
CNN’s Sophia Saifi reported from Islamabad; Chieu Luu wrote in Hong Kong and Susannah Cullinane wrote in Auckland. CNN’s James Masters in London, Journalist Adeel Raja in Rawalpindi and CNN’s Joe Sterling in Atlanta contributed to this report.