The Pakistani army has been called in to restore order to the capital after clashes between anti-blasphemy protesters and police left at least 174 people injured.
Thousands of riot police and paramilitary personnel on Saturday fired tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon at the protesters in an attempt to dislodge them from a major highway into Islamabad.
The protesters, numbering as many as 2,000, stood their ground, fighting back by throwing stones and beating police with sticks and metal rods in running battles that continued throughout the day.
The protesters have been blocking the Islamabad expressway, the main road into the capital, since November 8, demanding the resignation of Federal Law Minister Zahid Hamid over a perceived softening of the state’s position on blasphemy.
Last week, a Pakistani court ordered the government to clear the sit-in protest, prompting a series of meetings between protest leaders and the government to attempt to reconcile differences.
By midday, the demonstrators appeared to have beaten back the police to roadblocks located several kilometres away from the site of the protest.
“We will remain deployed but are holding our positions for now,” Khalid Khattak, Islamabad’d police chief, told Al Jazeera. “We do not want to cause further casualties [and] will adopt a new strategy soon.”
At least 111 of those injured in the clashes were members of the police or other security forces, said Dr Farrukh Kamal, an official at the PIMS government hospital where most of the wounded were being treated.
Official figures on how many protesters had been arrested during the crackdown were not immediately available.
Source: Al Jazeera / Asad Hashim