The Pakistani government has ordered the deployment of army troops late on Saturday(25 November) to secure capital Islamabad as anti-blasphemy protests spiralled out of control. Thousands of riot police and paramilitary fired tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets at the Islamist demonstrators during the clearing operations.
Anti-blasphemy protesters, numbering roughly 2,000, have been camped in a key highway known as Faizabad Interchange in Islamabad since early November demanding the resignation of the country's law minister.
Demonstrations were triggered after the wording of the electoral oath for lawmakers in the country was tweaked — a change which the protesters say was aimed at appeasing religious minorities. A fortnight full negotiations and intervention by courts did not satisfy the protesters leading to intense rallies.
Close to 200 people have been reported injured as clashes broke out during the protests. Many deaths have also been reported, but the exact figures are unclear. Despite the military's deployment to aid the civilian law enforcement agencies to disperse protesters, the operation is said to be unsuccessful, according to local media. While the crackdown against protesters was later suspended, up to 200 protesters have been taken into custody.
Though Pakistani military, a powerful force in the country, is yet to directly comment on the deployment, the interior minister said the decision was taken after the prime minister's approval. Following the announcement, military personnel are being mobilised around key facilities, including the parliament, presidential house and prime minister's residence, foreign missions, and foreign offices.
According to the Pakistani daily Dawn, Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal chaired a high-level security meeting late on Saturday, but the discussions did not yield any specific strategy to deal with the situation.
Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the firebrand Islamist cleric and leader of the Tehreek-e Labbaik Pakistan party spearheading the campaign, has now called for stepping up the demonstrations across the country. People have also begun to take to streets in other major Pakistani cities such as Karachi and Lahore, fuelling fears of violence spreading to other parts.
"Young boys with batons and stones, some with faces covered. [There were] several thousands of agitators in some locations of the city, where they lit up branches to block the roads," a local reporter, Kiran Nazish, was quoted as saying by the Guardian.
The country's media regulator prohibited television channels from airing live images from the protest sites in order to minimise the impact of demonstrations.