ISLAMABAD- At least 240 people were wounded in clashes between police and protesters in Islamabad, as a fortnight-long political impasse took a violent turn Saturday night.
Led by Imran Khan and Dr Thahirul Qadri, PTI and PAT protesters had been camped outside parliament house since August 15 demanding Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif quit, claiming the election which swept him to power last year was rigged.
The violence came after talks between government and Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) collapsed and around 25,000 people marched towards the PM House and attempted to remove barricades around it with cranes.
Government observed restraint for 17 days but ordered police to stop advance of marchers with force. The Constitution Avenue in the capital’s sensitive Red Zone turned into a battleground when the police carried out heavy teargas shelling and fired rubber bullets and protesters turned violent.
The injured, including women and children, were rushed to Islamabad’s two main hospitals. Wasim Khawaja, spokesman for the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences hospital said that 164 injured people have been taken to his hospital. “Condition of two of them was critical. There were more than 20 policemen among the injured,” he said, adding that most of the victims had been injured by rubber bullets, and that 17 of them were women.
Khurram Ghuman, a spokesman at Islamabad’s Poly Clinic hospital, said they had received 70 wounded so far. “There are 20 women among them and most have been affected by tear gas, but they all are in stable condition,” Ghuman said. The number of casualties was expected to rise as clashes continued late into night.
Demonstrations also erupted in parts of the eastern city of Lahore and the port city of Karachi. Protesters with batons burned tyres and blocked roads in Lahore. Charged PTI activists forced closure of shops in Liberty Market and burned tyres on roads in protest. They also tore down the PML-N banners and billboards hanging there. Police used batons and fired tear gas to disperse the demonstrators there. The protests remained peaceful in Karachi, however.
Women and children have been prominent among both protest groups, and the rising number of casualties is set to further polarise the already embittered political atmosphere. But government officials defended the use of force and sources said the government had decided to arrest both PTI chief Imran Khan and PAT leader Dr Tahirul Qadri.
“The demonstrators attacked first. They wanted to occupy the PM House and stage a sit-in there,” said Asif Kirmani, an aide of Sharif. Defence Minister Khawaja Asif said, “There are 1,600 to 2,000 trained terrorists (protesters). They have 200 women who are trained in the use of firearms and they have come with the intention of occupying state buildings... Their attempts are being resisted. And we will resist these with full force,” he added.
Qadri, however, said the government began the violence. “The march is heading to its destination, we were peaceful but government began the bloodshed,” he said. Khan told a TV channel during the violence that he was inside a shipping container in front of the prime minister’s house. Imran Khan called for countrywide protests for today (Sunday), saying: “We will continue our struggle against the government, till our last breath.”
The crisis took on a new dimension earlier in the week after the government asked the powerful army to mediate, raising fears the military would use the situation to enact a “soft coup” and increase its dominance over civilian authorities.
Earlier in the day on Saturday government negotiators and protesters’ leaders held multiple dialogue sessions in Islamabad but failed in breaking the deadlock, as both sides refused to budge from their positions – particularly on the issue of Premier Nawaz Sharif’s resignation demand.
Latter at night both Imran Khan and Dr Qadri delivered emotional speeches to their separate crowds saying that they would now stage a sit-in in front of the PM House. And, when the protesters started moving towards the PM House the police responded with teargas and rubber bullets triggering scuffles between the two sides.
As the two protesting parties started moving ahead, a crane operated by PAT workers started removing the shipping containers placed in front of Cabinet Division’s main gate and another gate adjacent to it – on the way leading towards the PM House, Presidency and Pakistan Secretariat.
Eyewitnesses said police first give way but when two containers were removed it started heavy shelling of tear gas followed by firing of rubber bullets that paralysed the protesters. The police also baton charged the protesters to disperse them.
The protesters also pelted police with stones while some of them were using batons and sling-shots that resulted in the injury of many police officials. Some enraged protesters broke the outer iron grill of the Parliament House and the Parliament Lodges but they did not move inside probably fearing action from army and rangers soldiers deputed there. A journalists of an English daily also got injured while many others took shelter inside the DSNG vans.
PTI supporters were the first who retreated amid calls of PAT workers who were urging them not to leave the place. During the whole saga, Dr Qadri was close to the scene but he did not come out of his bullet-proof car while Imran Khan, who also remained inside his container, only came out twice and addressed his very low number of supporters.