Islamabad: After night-long clashes here between anti-government demonstrators and security forces that left three people dead and about 450 others injured, the situation continued to be tense and uncertain even as the powerful Army Chief General Raheel Sharif summoned a meeting of corps commanders today.
The clashes broke out late last night when the demonstrators who have laid siege to the heart of the Pakistani establishment, housing the Presidency, the National Assembly, the Supreme Court, the Prime Minister's Office, sought to storm Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's residence nearby after breaking through the police barricade. The violence continued throughout the night and subsided this morning but the 18-day stand-off continued to force Sharif's resignation over alleged rigging during last year's elections.
Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan vowed to fight till death and asked Pakistanis to rebel against the “illegal” regime while the other anti-Sharif protest leader cleric Tahir-ul Quadri alleged seven of his supporters were killed by security forces which could not be confirmed.
General Sharif called a meeting of his corps commanders to discuss matters relating to the internal security situation.
The army holds the key to resolving the impasse which has plunged the country into the worst crisis, 15 months after Sharif's PML-N was voted to power.
Among those injured in the overnight clashes were several journalists.
Reporters, who were covering the protests, were brutally tortured by rioters and the police.
Meanwhile, the government on its part, said it was trying to re-open talks with opposition groups. Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid said the government remained open negotiations to end the crisis peacefully. “The government did not initiate the clashes. They turned violent and tried to enter sensitive government buildings, which are the symbol of the state,” Rashid was quoted by Geo News channel as saying.
“They wanted their demands to be met at gunpoint but still, our doors are open for talks,” he said. Sharif, who yesterday went to Lahore with his staff, returned to the capital today.
Yesterday, Sharif dismissed the protests, describing it as a “tiny storm” that will end soon.
“This is just a tiny storm, a tumult, which would be ended in a few days,” Sharif said.
Indicating that certain forces were trying to target him, the Pakistan Premier asserted that “conspiracy” against democracy will not be tolerated.
Meanwhile, clashes continued between police in riot gear and protesters. Many protesters had come armed with batons and slingshots.
Shipping containers were set ablaze, several vehicles torched in normally quiet Constitution Avenue following more than 15 hours of battle.
Police fired tear gas shells and rubber bullets to disperse the protesters outside the prime minister's official residence and the adjacent parliament building. Hundreds of protesters entered the lawn of parliament but they were pushed back at the main entrance of the building where army was deployed.
About 450 injured were brought to Polyclinic and Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences, the two premier state-run hospitals, a government official said.
A police official said over 70 policemen and five Frontier Constabulary personnel were injured in clashes with protesters armed with sticks, catapults and stones. After police crackdown, Khan asked Pakistanis to join him in the protest.
“I request the entire nation, civil servants, bureaucrats and police to rebel against this illegal government,” Khan told his supporters.
He asked officials to ignore all illegal orders from the government.
“I am prepared to die fighting for the freedom for my people,” he said, adding, “allah ya azaadi ya maut (either freedom or death)”.
He said his party would file a FIR against Sharif and Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Khan for killing people. Khan defended the protests saying that they were marching peacefully.
“Nawaz Sharif is a fascist and does not believe in democracy...In democracy, peaceful protest is our right,” he said, adding, “Those who say we shouldn't have done this do not know the difference between freedom and slavery”. So far the protesters failed to break into the security cordon and reach the Prime Minister House.
Addressing his supporters, Qadri said Sharif was interested in governance as it helped him with his business. “These people came to power to engage in corruption and carrying out their businesses…they are corrupt in every respect...day and night, the only thing these people want to ensure is that they deprive this country of as much of its wealth as they could,” he said.
The PAT chief alleged that in the whole of Europe, the biggest Asian investors were the Sharif family. “We had only wanted an FIR over Model Town (in Lahore),” Qadri said, adding that now that the government had dealt with the protesters in such a heavy-handed manner, we will not stop with their resignations.
“I will sacrifice myself in fighting against the treatment meted out against my sisters, daughters and party workers,” he said.
PTI leader Pervaiz Khattak said that they will not stop until Sharif resigns, as the protest entered 18th day. The situation was very tense in the capital as a number of demonstrators refused to budge from the protest site. Both the leaders are agitating since August 14 against alleged rigging during the last year general elections. A late night government announcement categorically ruled out Sharif's resignation and there is no threat to his life.
Meanwhile, the protesters clashed with police at famous Liberty Chowk and the Mall Road in Lahore. Half a dozen protesters suffered injuries and were shifted to hospital where their condition is stated to be out of danger.
A group of Khan's supporters gathered outside the residence of Defense Minister Khawaja Asif in Sialkot, some 150 km from Lahore, and pelted stones at it. Police, however, managed to disperse them. In Multan, some 350 km from Lahore, the Tehrik-e-Insaf activists blocked the motorway road for several hours. Police used baton to disperse them.
Opposition leaders have criticised both Khan and Qadri for inciting violence.