ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s capital was tense Sunday after attempts to disperse anti-blasphemy protests by Islamists ended in deadly violence, as the military appeared hesitant to respond to a government call for help.
Hundreds, possibly thousands, of demonstrators were still occupying roads and intersections connecting Islamabad with neighboring Rawalpindi, with protesters posting videos late Saturday night of funeral prayers being recited at a sit-in.
Demonstrators have blocked a major highway, paralyzing Islamabad for weeks. Security forces had moved to clear it Saturday but were met with stubborn resistance by protesters who torched vehicles and threw stones.
At least six people were killed and around 230 injured before security forces retreated on Saturday. Hospitals said most of the wounded had been released Sunday, with only around 20 still needing treatment.
An interior ministry order said the federal government had authorized the deployment of “sufficient troops” to “control law and order” in the capital until further notice.
But early Sunday there was no official military response and no sign of armored vehicles or soldiers on the streets. A military spokesman declined repeated requests for comment.
Civil-military relations have long been fraught in Pakistan, with the military ruling the country for nearly half of its 70-year history.
Private television broadcasts remained blocked and social media sites were restricted, sparking confusion about the state of protests and how authorities planned to respond to the spiraling situation.
“I don’t have any clue what is happening,” Naeem, a worried resident told AFP in an Islamabad market.
“Only Allah is running this country,” he added, complaining that the only channel working was Pakistan state TV — and it was airing a children’s program.
“Police, admin. should be more bold on decision making next time. This Incompetent govt. has made blunder on everything,” wrote Shadman Sharar Shohan on Facebook.
The little known Islamist group at the center of the protests are demanding the resignation of Pakistan’s law minister Zahid Hamid over a hastily-abandoned amendment to the oath that election candidates must swear.
Demonstrators have linked it to blasphemy — a highly contentious issue in Muslim Pakistan — and claim the oath was softened to enable the participation of Ahmadis, a long-persecuted Islamic minority sect.
The violent clashes spurred similar protests in major cities and towns nationwide. — AFP