ISLAMABAD: Thousands protesting against an anti-Islam film clashed with the police close to Islamabad’s diplomatic enclave on Thursday in chaotic scenes that left at least 80 people injured.
There have been dozens of demonstrations around Pakistan over the trailer of a movie titled “Innocence of Muslims”, but Thursday was the first time protests in the capital turned violent.
The clash between the police and protesters, mostly students spearheaded by the Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba and supported by the traders’ unions, lasted up to eight hours.
Police fired tear gas, rubber bullets and even live ammo (aerially) as demonstrators tried to enter the heavily-guarded enclave, home to most Western embassies, including the US, British and French missions.
The interior ministry called in the army to protect the area after protesters almost broke through a barrier of shipping containers set up by the police.
Five platoons of the Frontier Constabulary (FC) and an equal number of Rangers were also deployed at the Constitution Avenue. However, no protester managed to get that far, said a police official.
“We want all Americans living inside the diplomatic enclave to be handed over to us,” a police official quoted one of the protesters as saying.
All entrances to the red zone were blocked with cargo containers and over 2,000 police officers, many of whom were in riot gear, were deployed.
Earlier in the day, a group of school and college students managed to breach a police cordon near Dhokri Chowk, where they destroyed a police mobile and pelted policemen with stones. “We managed to push them out and that was the only small breach,” said a senior police official.
“We have come here at the call of our seniors. They said the Americans have insulted our Prophet (PBUH),” said Shahid Iqbal, an eigth-grade student. “I will kill Americans once I get to them,” added his class-fellow, Mehmood.
The clashes further intensified as 3,000 traders and religious organisation activists from Rawalpindi joined the students.
“The protesters included a large number of members of Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and Islamist student unions’ activists. Some of them even resorted to aerial firing,” said a police official.
Around 55 policemen and 35 protesters sustained injuries in the clash.
Police rounded up over three dozen protesters, including members of religious organisations and their student wings. A majority of them were later released after a deal between the city admisitration and a delegate of religious leaders. However, police said they would book people who led the protests and those who damaged public property.
A case is yet to be registered.
The angry mob also set on fire a police post at the five-star Serena Hotel. The luxury hotel came under attack as a few demonstrators managed to enter the car park and damage vehicles.
Hotel security moved to protect the hotel, which was hosting a number of foreigners and locals at the time of clash.
No one was allowed to exit or enter the hotel for almost three hours.
There were more rallies against the film elsewhere in Pakistan on Thursday, the largest of which was in Lahore, where a boisterous crowd of around 4,000 staged a peaceful gathering.
Other smaller protests were seen in Karachi, Multan, Chaman and Azad Kashmir.
In Quetta, some 2,000 students paraded on the main airport road before gathering outside the Quetta Press Club where they burnt US and Israeli flags.
Around 100 Christians denounced the film in their own protest in the border town of Chaman. They carried placards and banners that read: “We are with Muslims against blasphemous film”.
Relatively peaceful demonstrations were observed across Peshawar on Thursday. Various political parties took part in the rallies, including JUI-F, PPP and PML-N’s minority wing.
Posters and pamphlets were also distributed urging residents to participate in protests outside the US consulate in Peshawar.
Speakers at a rally against the film on Thursday threatened to behead American nationals trying to enter Mansehra district.
The threat has forced the local administration to heighten security in the Kaghan area where over a dozen international cycle champions from foreign counties are staying to participate in the Himalayas Tour 2012.
With additional reporting by Hassan Ali in Peshawar, Muhammad Sadaqat in Mansehra and additional input from AFP
Published in The Express Tribune, September 21st, 2012.