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(Above) Activists of religious groups throwing back tear gas shells at law enforcement agencies personnel in Islamabad during the crackdown. A police van in flames (below, left) after protesters in Rawalpindi set it on fire while police in Lahore arrest some protesters.—Online
(Above) Activists of religious groups throwing back tear gas shells at law enforcement agencies personnel in Islamabad during the crackdown. A police van in flames (below, left) after protesters in Rawalpindi set it on fire while police in Lahore arrest some protesters.—Online

ISLAMABAD/RAWALPINDI: The army was called in on Saturday to deal with the aftermath of a botched operation against protesters from religious parties that had all but paralysed the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi for over a fortnight.

As many as six people were killed and hundreds wounded as law enforcement agencies finally acted under court orders to disperse protesters who had amassed at Faizabad Interchange.

But the ill-planned action only added fuel to the demonstrators’ fire and not only failed to dislodge them, but also fanned smaller protests in other parts of the country.

• Six killed, hundreds injured in clashes across Islamabad, Pindi • Protesters maintain hold on Faizabad • Action sparks countrywide protests, law minister’s home attacked in Pasrur

Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal told Dawn on Saturday night that a formal requisition for the deployment of troops in Rawalpindi and Islamabad had been sent to the army.

Initially, the interior ministry released an erroneous notification, which was replaced by a fresh one later in the night. The latter requisitioned the army under Article 245 of the Constitution to protect the life and property of the residents of Rawalpindi and Islamabad.

However, no troops had been deployed in either city until the filing of this report.

Although security personnel deployed around the venue of the sit-in vastly outnumbered the participants, a combination of ill-planning on the part of the authorities and guerilla tactics from the demonstrators helped the latter turn the tables on law enforcement personnel, who seemed to have the upper hand early on Saturday morning.

The operation began just before 8am, after the final deadline given to the leadership of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah expired. Police, Frontier Constabulary and Punjab Constabulary personnel converged on the protesters from all sides with tear gas, rubber bullets and batons, but were met with fierce resistance.

But over the course of the next couple of hours, the participants of the sit-in were successfully dispersed by police and hundreds of people were taken into custody, while the injured were sent to hospital for treatment.

But after being cornered and forced to retreat towards the truck occupied by Khadim Hussain Rizvi and sit-in other leaders — in the centre of the Faizabad flyover — protesters rallied and managed to outflank law enforcers, who were forced to retreat, providing openings for the riled-up participants of the sit-in to slip through.

Consequently, the demonstrators spread across Rawalpindi and blocked key intersections, such as Katchery Chowk near the military’s General Headquarters, and Committee Chowk in the heart of the garrison city.

A number of protesters pursuing injured policemen even broke into Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan’s residence, breaking down the gate and damaging a section of the wall, and only dispersed when policemen fired at the mob.

The six men killed on Saturday were identified as Hafiz Mohammad Adeel, Jahanzaib Butt, Abdul Rehman, Mohammad Sharjeel, Zohaib Ahmed and Mohammad Irfan. In addition, nine police officers and a polio vaccinator was also injured in the melee and taken to various hospitals in Rawalpindi.

A number of senior police officials were also injured when protesters who had occupied the Metro Bus Station at Shamasabad were invited for negotiations by Rawalpindi Police chief Israr Abbasi. However, the ambushed the officials, injuring Mr Abbasi and SP Syed Ali.

Although Rangers personnel were deployed in Islamabad around the site of the sit-in, they did not participate in the action against protesters.

A senior police official told Dawn that no security personnel was killed in the violence, even though there were conflicting accounts of a policeman being killed in clashes.

The protesters also set fire to police vehicles and damaged public property on Murree Road, damaging metro bus stations, CNG pumps and a furniture market near Faizabad.

A lull in the operation allowed the protesters to retake all the areas that had earlier been cleared and by Saturday night, things stood exactly where they were the previous night, with protesters still occupying Faizabad.

News of the police action prompted a swift backlash, and even as the government ordered TV channels off-air in a bid to control the flow of information, protests broke out in several other parts of the country too.

Lahore, which is the traditional stronghold of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah, saw the strongest backlash, with protesters blocking all routes in and out of the city and bringing life to a standstill. Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leader Mian Javed Latif was injured trying to negotiate with protesters near Batti Chowk.

The ancestral home of Law Minister Zahid Hamid was also attacked in Pasrur, near Sialkot, while one person was killed, allegedly by police, during a rally in Gujranwala. Protests also paralysed Multan, Gujrat, Okara and, as a result, nearly all major motorways and highways in Punjab remained blocked for traffic.

In Karachi, 35 people – including two policemen – were injured as protesters blocked main arteries such as Sharea Faisal and forcibly closed down shops in Saddar.

Published in Dawn, November 26th, 2017