A crackdown against religious protesters camped out at Islamabad’s Faizabad Interchange was ‘suspended’ on Saturday evening as thousands of protesters took over the streets in the federal capital.
The Islamabad police, with the help of Frontier Constabulary (FC) personnel and other law enforcement agencies, launched the operation against protesters earlier today after the last of a long series of deadlines lapsed this morning without response from the agitating parties. The protesters have been camped out at the Faizabad Interchange since November 8.
Roughly 8,500 elite police and paramilitary troops in riot gear took part in the clearance operation.
An Islamabad police spokesman told AFP that an officer was killed in the clash with protesters after he was struck in the head by a rock. His death has not been independently verified by DawnNews.
So far, over 200 people have been injured across Islamabad and Rawalpindi with numbers expected to rise. At least 60 police officers, 45 FC men, and 50 civilians are among those injured. The injured also include the Bani Gala station house officer (SHO) and Abdul Hadi, a magistrate of the Islamabad administration.
Law Minister Zahid Hamid’s residence in Sialkot was also attacked by protesters as the agitation spilled over to other cities across the country.
At least 150 protesters have been arrested so far.
The operation was suspended in the evening when roughly 1,000 protesters unexpectedly entered Islamabad through the Express Highway to join the agitators, according to a DawnNews reporter present on-site.
Due to the unfavorable wind direction, law enforcement personnel found themselves unable to shell the incoming protesters effectively and retreated, leaving the area open for a few thousand more to enter in through the Murree Road, Rawal Dam and Express Highway areas. The operation was suspended shortly thereafter.
Following the suspension, protesters regrouped at the Faizabad Interchange. The number of protesters has reportedly grown from 1,000 to 5,000.
Protests spread to other cities
Unrest in the federal capital has spilled over to Karachi, as protesters loyal to the same religious parties have begun agitating against the Faizabad operation at various spots in the city.
Protesters blocked roads and demonstrated at the Numaish traffic intersection in the city’s busy Saddar area in the morning.
However, the protests later spread to other parts of the city, including Teen Talwar, Boat Basin, NIPA, Shahrah-i-Faisal near Stargate and Nursery, Hub River Road and Hassan Square, where both tracks of the road have closed for traffic.
At least 12 people were reportedly injured in skirmishes with police at Stargate and Nursery, where police have begun tear gas shelling protesters. In response, the protesters stone-pelted police officials.
Reports have been received of enraged protesters burning tyres and forcibly closing businesses in various areas. Police is standing alert in Karachi, and important government buildings have been secured.
Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah took notice of the sit-ins in Karachi. He has directed the commissioner and inspector general of police to to clear the traffic in the city.
A large number of religious parties also took out rallies and staged demonstrations in Umerkot, Mithi, Sujawal and other towns of lower Sindh to register their protest against the ongoing operation against the protesters in Islamabad. They vowed to continue their peaceful protests.
Various religious organisations also staged a protest demonstration outside the Badin Press Club, demanding a halt in use of violence against protesters in the capital.
Meanwhile, demonstrators have also converged at Shahdara in Lahore.
There are reports of similar protests at Imamia Colony and other settlements along the GT Road. Roads from Lahore to Gujranwala and Faisalabad have also been closed.
News channels, social media ‘blocked’
In the afternoon, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) prohibited all satellite TV channels from live coverage of the operation.
After the Pemra notification was issued, news channels went off air in various parts of the country.
Additionally, Facebook, YouTube, DailyMotion, Twitter and Instagram have been blocked in some parts of the country.
How it happened
Law enforcement personnel this morning encircled the Faizabad Interchange area and used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse agitators. In response, the protesters used stones and rocks to attack the advancing security forces, as well as tear gas shells.
“We will clear the Faizabad area today in line with the court’s orders,” a senior police officer told APP, earlier today adding: “We will try our best to make sure there is no fatality.”
However, Ejaz Ashrafi, a spokesman of Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY), the main agitating party, told Reuters that: “We are in the thousands. We will not leave. We will fight until the end.”
The protesters allegedly looted two police vehicles and two police vans and a Samaa DSNG were set on fire in the twin cities. The Metro bus station on Sixth Road was damaged. Loudspeakers were also used to rally the protesters.
Trees have been cut down to block roads, and protesters are burning tyres, AFP reported.
As of 11am, nearly all protesters camped out on the I.J. Principal Road near the Faizabad Interchange were dispersed; however, sporadic shelling took place against protesters on Rawalpindi’s Murree Road.
According to DawnNews, the protesters appeared to have been prepared for the crackdown. Some had armed themselves with catapults and sticks. Some were wearing crude masks to prevent identification.
Thick smoke could be seen in the area soon after the crackdown was launched, mostly due to heavy tear gas shelling.
The tactic did not seem to be having the intended effect: initially, security forces themselves could be seen retreating after struggling with the fumes.
Within two hours of the operation starting, however, protesters at Faizabad retreated in the face of police action, and security forces had successfully dispersed nearly half of those gathered.
AFP reporters at the site said more protesters were arriving, though it was difficult to tell how many.
Authorities have been conducting aerial surveillance of the operation from helicopters. Islamabad’s Red Zone and Diplomatic Enclave were sealed off with containers to prevent protesters from entering the area.
Police close in on protest leaders
The Islamabad administration asked TLY leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi to surrender, but he has refused so far.
A live video streamed on Facebook by one of his supporters at 9am showed him leading the sloganeering from a raised platform, surrounded by men armed with sticks.