MULTAN/ RAWALPINDI/ ISLAMABAD:
A rare curfew and a lockdown of volatile neighbourhoods left Rawalpindi’s streets bare on Saturday, a day after fierce clashes erupted between rival groups in the city.
Policemen and soldiers from regular and paramilitary units, who were called in to restore order, patrolled troubled areas throughout the day, arresting people who violated the curfew.
Up to nine people died and dozens were injured in the clashes which continued late into Friday night.
By early Saturday the army and law enforcement agencies managed to bring the situation under control. The district administration, however, recommended extending the curfew for a few more days out of fear of another outbreak of violence in the month of Muharram.
Interior ministry officials said that any decision to extend the curfew would be taken in light of changing circumstances. However, army contingents providing security at sensitive sites may be asked to stay for a few more days, they added.
“The situation is under control and those responsible for the violence will be brought to justice,” Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif in a telephone call. “The government will not allow anyone to disturb the peace,” he added.
The violence was apparently ignited by the storming of a religious seminary in Raja Bazaar. Some unidentified people attacked the policemen deployed outside the seminary as well and snatched their weapons before resorting to firing.
The mob later set the seminary and nearby shops on fire. More than a hundred shops were gutted according to local traders, as firemen struggled to put out the blaze. Ambulances ferried the dead and the injured to nearby hospitals. No formal investigation has been carried out so far.
Gunjmandi police registered a case against over 100 suspects.
The next morning
Tension prevailed across Rawalpindi and Islamabad following the ugly incident and most residents chose to remain indoors due to the curfew. Army and law enforcement agencies nabbed at least 24 people – most of them seminary students holding protests against the incident – for violating the clampdown.
Rawat Chowk, Morga, Pir Wadhai, Chor Chowk and Faizabad Interchange were blocked off by containers, while roads leading to Raja Bazaar, Guwalmandi, Bhora Bazaar, Mohanpura and Saddar were sealed by the army. Entrance into Rawalpindi was blocked at Soan, infuriating the commuters trying to enter the twin cities from GT Road.
Cellular services remained suspended on Saturday as the federal government directed concerned authorities to continue the blockade till further orders. Mobile services were also suspended in Islamabad from 1am Saturday to 2pm Sunday as part of efforts to maintain security.
Curfew was briefly relaxed between 9pm and 12am on Saturday night to allow residents to collect groceries and other necessary supplies.
‘It could be avoided’
Eyewitnesses and residents said the entire incident could be avoided if the city administration had implemented the security plan properly. Security for the area declared sensitive ahead of Muharram was entrusted to a few dozen police constables.
No senior police officer was present to command the policemen who panicked and resorted to aerial firing when the clashes broke out.
The district administration should have also banned the use of loud speakers by any of the groups on that particular day, locals said.
Witnesses said the police had no backup plan either and the reserve force reached the scene of the clashes very late.
Scores injured in Multan, Bahawalnagar
More than 110 people, including police personnel, sustained injuries on Friday and Saturday amid unrest in Bahawalnagar and Multan.
A hospital, two shops and some other buildings were burnt down by angry protesters in different areas of Bahawalnagar. As many as 70 people, including two policemen, were injured in the riots. The Chishtian sub-district was subsequently handed over to the army and while Rangers were called to take over Bahwalnagar’s Haroonabad area.
Another 40 people were injured in Multan on Saturday when clashes erupted in the city. As the riots spread to over half the area of Multan, army and Rangers were called in to defuse the situation.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 17th, 2013.