Thousands rally in second day of Pakistan protests
on 15/01/2013 09:18:53
They were heeding the call of a cleric who has fired up Pakistanis angry at perceived government corruption.
And they took to the streets of Islamabad despite early morning clashes with police who fired off shots and tear gas to push back stone-throwing demonstrators.
The protest called by Tahir-ul-Qadri, a mysterious cleric who just recently returned from Canada, has galvanised many Pakistanis who say the current government has brought them only misery.
But critics fear that Mr Qadri and his demands for reforms may derail the country's upcoming elections, possibly at the behest of the country's powerful military.
Mr Qadri has urged the government to resign and called on his followers to stay until their demands are met.
Many had brought blankets to ward off the cold and slept in the streets overnight.
He has already demanded the national and all four provincial assemblies be dissolved, and has vowed to address his followers again later today.
The rally was largely peaceful until police and protesters clashed hours after Mr Qadri's speech ended, with each side blaming the other for the incident.
Television footage showed police shooting into the air to push back protesters and a man on the ground being beaten by what appeared to be protesters.
Demonstrators threw rocks at a vehicle, while others held up shells and an empty tear gas canister.
Minister of Interior Rehman Malik, speaking on Pakistani television, said some of the demonstrators had weapons and attacked police with stones.
He said: "Tahir-ul-Qadri has said that the marchers would remain peaceful but police have been stoned and shots were also fired."
A spokesman for Mr Qadri, Shahid Mursaleen, blamed the entire incident on the security officials and said police had tried to arrest the cleric and opened fire without provocation.
Thousands of people remained on the streets after the clashes stopped. One city official put the number of protesters at roughly 30,000.
Some of Mr Qadri's reform proposals have sparked concern that he is being used as a front for the Pakistani military to derail the upcoming vote, just as the country - which has a history of coups - prepares for its first transfer of power from one civilian government to another.
He has called for a military role in picking the caretaker government that will take over temporarily ahead of elections and has said it could stay in place longer than normal to enact necessary reforms.
The military is widely believed to dislike both the main political parties vying for power.
Mr Qadri has denied any military backing, and elections are expected this spring.
During an early morning speech, Mr Qadri called for the government to resign and called on his followers to stay in the streets of the capital until their demands are met. Many had brought blankets to ward off the cold and slept there overnight.
"I give you time ... to dissolve the national and all four provincial assemblies otherwise the nation will dissolve them on their own," he said. He vowed to address his followers again later today.
The protest has been largely peaceful since demonstrators set off from Lahore on Sunday, but the underlying tension was evident this morning when police and protesters clashed hours after Mr Qadri's speech ended. Each side blamed the other.