RAWALPINDI / ISLAMABAD: The battle for Red Zone lasted several hours.
Around 1,000 protesters battled the Islamabad Police for more than four hours on Thursday afternoon in a bid to march toward the US embassy, housed in the sensitive Red Zone along with other embassies and government offices.
The students, mostly wearing college uniforms and carrying sticks, belonged to various local colleges and student federations. They were protesting against an amateur film production that targets Muslim sentiments. The film, “Innocence of Muslims”, has sparked violent protests all over the country.
The protesters started moving toward the Diplomatic Enclave around 2pm by walking and driving along both the Kashmir Highway and Khayaban-e Suharwardy.
The Islamabad Police had blocked the road leading to the Diplomatic Enclave in the morning by setting up two cargo containers next to the Ataturk Avenue near Serena Hotel. The confrontation between protesters and the police began when some students tried to get close to those barriers.
Police, in riot gear, fired around five tear gas canisters at the crowd of protesters. The protesters responded with pelting stones at the front line of the riot police. The police retaliated with massive volleys of tear gas and succeeded in pushing back the protesters momentarily.
But the students kept pushing forward at regular intervals.
This back and forth between the police and students continued till around 5pm, when a separate protest rally of religious parties, traders and lawyers from Rawalpindi reached Islamabad along the Club Road.
The siege gained momentum with the fresh influx of protesters. These protesters from Rawalpindi were not offered any resistance by the Punjab police, according to sources, and let into Islamabad unchallenged.
Residents living on either side of the Benazir Bhutto Road had set up several stalls to serve members of the rally coming from Rawalpindi. The residents offered milk and drinks to the marchers all day long.
Earlier in the day, before moving to Islamabad, the protesters had marched several roads of Rawalpindi, including Peshawar Road, Mall Road, Airport Road, Liaquat Road, without an incident.
It was only when they entered Islamabad through the Faizabad flyover that the protesters became riotous.
The impasse between the police and the student protesters was broken once the rally joined the protesters from Islamabad. The first set of cargo containers near the Ataturk Avenue leading to Serena Hotel gave way.
The angry men moved on to Serena Hotel, setting fire to a police check post and damaging two police and a few civilian vehicles in the process. They also moved a set of containers set up by police near Kashmir Chowk, but the police stopped them from reaching anywhere near the Diplomatic Enclave.
Around 30 protesters and 55 policemen were injured during the confrontation, according to the police. Police also used rubber bullets to push back the protesters.
The Islamabad protest was organised by the “Muttahida Talba Mahaz”, which is composed of several student federations including the Islami Jamiat Talba (Jamat-e Islami’s student wing), the Muslim Students Federation and the Pakistan Students Federation.
Before the confrontation with the police started, Izharul Haq, an organiser who is also a member of the Islami Jamiat Talba, told The Express Tribune, “We have requested the administration to allow us passage to the US embassy, so our leaders can register a peaceful protest with the embassy officials and present a resolution.”
Responding to a question, he said, “If the administration doesn’t allow our peaceful protest, it will be extremely difficult for us to control the students who have gathered here.”
Amir Ahmed, a student of the Punjab College of Commerce in Aabpara, was one of the first protesters to reach the barricade near Serena Hotel.
“We cannot tolerate any disrespect of our Prophet Muhammad (PBUH),” he said.
Another student, 17-year-old Kamran Ahmed of Rawalpindi’s Indus College, said, “We want to show the Americans that Muslims are not a nation of dead people.”
Most of the early protesters were teenagers from local intermediate colleges. Later, however, some 600 students from the Islamic International University Islamabad also joined the protest.
The protesters from Rawalpindi consisted of traders, students, members of religious groups and lawyers.
The crowd dispersed around 6:30pm, once it began to get dark.
Commuters and drivers faced some difficulties during the day because police had blocked off parts of Khayaban-e Suharwardy near G-6/4 and a part of Kashmir Highway from Kashmir Chowk on Club Road to the Aabpara Market. Containers were also used to block access to the Red Zone that houses important government buildings and the Diplomatic Enclave.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 21st, 2012.
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