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The Pakistani government summoned army troops and imposed controls on the media as it tried to restore calm to Islamabad following violent clashes between riot police and Islamists on Saturday night.
A senior government official who spoke to the FT late on Saturday said; “The police are unable to tackle this situation on their own and the army has been called to the rescue.” Exactly what role the troops would play was not immediately clear.
At least five people including one police officer were killed and up to 200 demonstrators were injured in pitch battles when riot policemen fired tear gas shells while protesters threw back stones and bricks.
Protesters also set a number of cars and properties on fire in the Faizabad neighbourhood.
Earlier on Saturday, riot police clashed with up to 1500 protesters who have been camped at one of the main entrances to Islamabad for the past three weeks calling for the resignation of Zahid Hamid, the law minister.
The authorities ordered all news TV channels to be blocked while social media users said they could not access Facebook and Twitter accounts. These measures appeared to be aimed at curbing the flow of information to protesters.
The protests began after a reference to the Prophet Muhammad was omitted from a constitutional bill in parliament. The government said the omission — subsequently corrected — was a clerical mistake. Islamists claimed it was a conspiracy against Islamic values.
The deteriorating security situation appeared to have spread to other parts of the populous Punjab province by Saturday night, the main home state of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz.
Protests by Islamists were also reported in Karachi, the southern port city.
Opposition leaders renewed calls for the resignation of Mr Hamid and at least two other ministers. “I don’t see how this situation can be managed without meeting the demands of the protesters” said Asad Umar, a leading opposition politician belonging to the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, which is led by Imran Khan, the former cricket star.
Analysts and politicians from the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz warned that the army’s involvement in settling the crisis could significantly weaken the authority of the government. Such anxieties are fuelled by the country’s history: Pakistan has been run by the army for roughly half of its life as an independent state.
“I have received no less than half a dozen phone calls this evening from friends who asked if the army is preparing to take over once again,” a retired senior general told the FT late on Saturday.
“Right now, the army has no intention of taking charge . . . just when they are fully deployed along the Indian border and fighting the Taliban on the Afghan border,” he said, echoing a stock response from senior army officers when asked about their intentions in times of political turmoil.
Western diplomats said, in spite of recent assurances by senior army generals that they have no intention of seizing power, “Its very important that this crisis ends soon.”
Said one, “If the deadlock continues and there is more violence in the coming days, I can’t predict the future”.