ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s government Sunday said it was trying to re-open talks with opposition groups after bloody clashes between police and protesters outside the prime minister’s house left two dead and hundreds injured.
Thousands of followers of politician Imran Khan and firebrand cleric Tahir ul Qadri have been camped outside parliament since August 15 demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, triggering a crisis that has raised the spectre of military intervention.
Opposition groups — who claim the 2013 election which swept Sharif to power was rigged — attempted to storm the prime minister’s offical residence on Saturday night, using cranes to remove barricades.
Information minister Pervaiz Rashid said Sunday the government remained open to restarting negotiations to end the situation peacefully.
“The government did not initiate the clashes. They turned violent and tried to enter sensitive government buildings, which are the symbol of the state,” he said, speaking to the private media.
“They wanted their demands to be met at gunpoint but still, our doors are open for talks.” By Sunday morning sporadic clashes were continuing between police in riot gear and a few hundred protesters, as thousands more lay on the grass and slept.
Many of the protesters had come armed with batons and slingshots. Several vehicles stood torched, including police vans as Islamabad’s normally pristine Constitution Avenue bore the scars of 12 hours of battle. Addressing supporters, former cricket hero Khan said: “I will not leave my people alone and keep fighting until we secure a real independence for Pakistan.”
“Sharif brothers have a lust for power. They are not sincere with the people or the country. “We will get their resignations and put them in jails.”
Neither Khan nor Qadri led their protests from the front, though Khan later tweeted a picture of himself standing on top of a shipping container which he said was being shelled by tear gas.
Two Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS) reported two deaths — one man who had sustained rubber bullet injuries and another who had died of a heart attack, spokespeople said. The injured included dozens of women and a handful of children, were rushed to the city’s two major hospitals, PIMS and Poly Clinic. At least 79 police were among the wounded.
The crisis took on a new dimension on Thursday after it was announced the country’s powerful army chief General Raheel Sharif would mediate.
Sharif has vowed to stay on as prime minister, though analysts believe that he would be forced to concede ground to the army in key areas if he were to survive the crisis. The protest leaders have drawn thousands to the streets of Islamabad, but their call has not mobilised mass support in a country of 180 million people.