PESHAWAR / ISLAMABAD / LAHORE / KARACHI: It started as a state-sanctioned holiday to mark reverence for Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
Before long, however, it descended into mayhem and chaos.
As tens of thousands took to the streets across Pakistan to protest against sacrilegious film ‘Innocence of Muslims,’ a few hundred managed to pillage and ransack public property, cinemas, banks and fuel stations. Markets were vandalised, vehicles set ablaze.
Millions, meanwhile, were besieged at home and watched the chaos unfold on their television screens.
Crowds of inflamed men attempted to breach security cordons around foreign embassies and sensitive installations, and clashed with security forces when pushed back.
The Serena Hotel Chowk in Islamabad, the Native Jetty Bridge in Karachi, and the Shimla Pahari roundabout in Lahore – all close to the US Embassy, or its consulates – witnessed some of the fiercest pitched battles between baton-wielding and rock-hurling protesters, and policemen armed with anti-riot gear.
When the sun went down on Friday, over smouldering tyres and rock-strewn avenues, 26 people had died, and over 200 were injured across the country.
As the pungent smell of burnt rubber settled down, collective calls for restraint, and expressions of horror at the carnage, flew in from political and religious leaders.
Worst off: Karachi
Karachi witnessed some of the largest protests, and hence most casualties and injuries.
Twenty people were killed and 103 others were reported injured in the city. Police officials said a 100 people had been arrested.
The fiercest clashes took place at the Native Jetty Bridge, where protesters converged in an attempt to reach the US Consulate located close by. The police, however, had blocked all possible routes to the compound.
In other parts of the city, six cinemas, five banks, the Sheraton Hotel, fast-food restaurants and numerous other businesses were attacked violently.
Three policemen were among those killed in the clashes.
Peshawar spirals out of control
Peshawar was not far behind in the mayhem.
Anarchy reigned in the provincial capital, which resembled a dusty battlefield in most parts, as tens of thousands took to the streets to protest. The police were largely protecting the ‘red zone,’ where the US consulate is located.
In what was construed as the worst rioting in recent years, armed protesters set four of the city’s leading cinema houses on fire, damaged the chamber of commerce building and looted shops around the city.
At least six people were killed, and 65 others injured in the rioting.
Diplomatic enclave besieged
Fresh from the clashes on Thursday, the Islamabad police was better poised to keep infuriated protesters at a safe distance from the diplomatic enclave, which houses most Western embassies, including the US mission.
Clashes, nonetheless, were witnessed at the Serena Hotel roundabout where thousands of protesters from Rawalpindi and Islamabad had converged.
The angry mob managed to cross the first security tier, but was repelled by the police, said security officials. Rangers and the Army had also been called in to protect foreign missions and formed the innermost security ring.
Over 40 people were injured, including 20 policemen, but no casualties were reported from the capital.
Lahore largely peaceful
While protests in Lahore were largely peaceful, there were some areas where heavy containers and police contingents were unable to control angry protesters.
Apart from the roads leading to the US Consulate, most of the clashes took place on the nine-kilometres of The Mall road where several rallies converged.
Protesters attempted to reach the US consulate, but were unsuccessful. They directed their rage at the Governor House then, until pushed back by the police.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 22nd, 2012.