Islamabad – Pakistan has extended a deadline for Islamist protesters to end a days-long sit-in on the streets of the capital after deploying thousands of police and paramilitary forces in a show of force Tuesday night.
Several thousand demonstrators armed with sticks have been camped at Islamabad’s main Constitution Avenue close to key government buildings, including the presidency and parliament, since late Sunday.
The demonstrators, supporters of executed Islamist assassin Mumtaz Qadri, who was hanged on February 29, say they have submitted a list of demands including the execution of a female Christian blasphemy convict.
A security source had told AFP that an operation would be launched against the protesters if they did disperse by Tuesday night.
But Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan later told reporters: “If the protesters do not disperse peacefully tonight, then we will evict them in the morning in front of everyone.
“There are women and children in the protest whom they are using as human shields. There are also elderly people and if we do the operation in the night, then they might be harmed and we do not want to hurt anyone,” he added.
– Deep divisions –
AFP journalists at the scene on Tuesday did not see any women or children, where the front lines of police and protesters, who numbered around 2,000, were separated by some 100 metres.
Protesters shouted religious slogans while the leaders made fiery speeches vowing to continue their sit-in.
A legal notice issued earlier to the protesters and seen by AFP accused them of attempting “to frustrate the government’s drive against terrorism”.
A police source said more than 5,000 security forces would be deployed, including the paramilitary Rangers and Frontier Corps with reinforcements from the Punjab police.
Army troops are already standing guard at government buildings near the site.
Qadri was hanged for killing a Punjab governor over his call for blasphemy reform, in what analysts said was a “key moment” in Pakistan’s long battle against religious extremism.
But it also exposed deep religious divisions in the conservative Muslim country of 200 million.
An estimated 25,000 supporters of Qadri forced their way into the capital Sunday from its twin-city Rawalpindi, where they had gathered to offer prayers for the former police bodyguard.
By evening they were engaged in violent clashes with police and paramilitary troops, who made heavy use of tear gas in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent them from pushing closer to the city centre.
Their demands include the execution of Asia Bibi, a Christian mother-of-five who has been on death row since she was convicted in 2010 of committing blasphemy during an argument with a Muslim woman over a bowl of water.
They are also calling for Qadri to be officially declared a “martyr” and want the immediate imposition of Sharia law.
– Crackdown in Punjab –
The protests come as Pakistan mourns the 73 people killed in Sunday’s suicide attack at a park in the city of Lahore, many of them children.
Hundreds more were injured in the bombing, which targeted Christians celebrating Easter and was claimed by the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar faction of the Pakistani Taliban, whose official name is the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
Authorities have conducted numerous raids since the attack, detaining more than 200 people, after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif vowed to bring those behind the carnage to justice.
“More than 5,000 people were searched and interrogated and most of them were allowed to go, but some 216 have been apprehended for further investigations,” Punjab provincial law minister Rana Sanaullah told reporters Tuesday.
Sanaullah said police, paramilitary troops and intelligence agents had launched 56 intelligence operations in the last 24 hours in Punjab.Brazil’s embattled president cancels Washington trip: state news agency
More were being carried out across the province “against sectarian militants and extremists”, he said.
But Jamaat-ul-Ahrar spokesman Ehansullah Ehsan took to Twitter to deride the prime minister.
“After the Lahore attack, Nawaz Sharif repeated old words to give himself false assurances,” he wrote.
“Nawaz Sharif should know that war has reached his doorstep, and God willing the mujahideen will be the winners in this war.”