The Pakistani army has been called in to “restore peace” after six people were killed and hundreds were injured in protests across the country over a controversial amendment to the blasphemy law.
The army has been deployed in the capital city for an indefinite period to control the situation and crack down on protesters who they accuse of being violent.
Early on Saturday, after a midnight deadline expired, police launched an operation to clear protesters from an intersection linking Islamabad with Rawalpindi, prompting other demonstrators to take to the streets in solidarity, bringing several major cities to a virtual standstill.
The clashes came after a court ordered an end to the sit-in protest because it was disrupting daily life in and around Islamabad.
Smoke and tear gas filled the air as the roughly 8,500 elite police and paramilitary troops in riot gear were also seen throwing rocks and using slingshots in the ongoing bid to clear tens of thousands of demonstrators which began soon after dawn.
TV news channels have been taken off air and social media websites have been blocked.
The Pakistani capital has been paralysed for weeks by those supporting cleric Shaykh Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who leads the new party “Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah”.
On November 8, hundreds of anti-blasphemy protesters entered the Pakistani capital Islamabad to protest against a controversial change in the country’s electoral law, which they saw as a softening of the state’s position against Ahmadis (Qadianis).
Khadim Hussain Rizvi has long campaigned against Ahmadis, accusing them of blasphemy and he has been accused of regularly inciting violence against them.
Ahmadis are unanimously viewed as non-Muslims by both Sunni and Shia Muslims, even if they self-identify as “Muslims”.
The heretical group say they have long suffered persecution in Pakistan and elsewhere.
While the government reversed the change in the electoral law even before the protesters arrived in Islamabad, they are now demanding federal law minister Zahid Hamid, who they consider responsible for the change, be fired and face criminal charges.