LAHORE, Feb 14: Two young men were killed and 20 suffered injuries when angry mobs, protesting against publication of sacrilegious caricatures of the Holy Prophet (Peace be upon him) in a number of European newspapers turned violent.
The protesters ransacked and set on fire a number of buildings, including the Punjab Assembly, and hundreds of cars and motorcycles in the city on Tuesday.
The shooting, which claimed the two lives, occurred on Egerton Road where a bank security guard opened fire on approaching rioters. Three youngsters suffered bullet injuries and they were rushed to the Mayo Hospital.
One of the injured youngsters died on way to the hospital and another died after first aid dressing, said Dr Tariq at the emergency ward of the hospital. The deceased were identified as Muhammad Qaisar, 22, and Muhammad Rafiq, 25. He added that 13 injured people had been taken to the hospital. Of them, five suffered bullet injuries, he said, adding that three of them were in a critical condition.
Eyewitnesses and police said the establishments ransacked and set on fire by groups of rioters included a number of local and foreign banks, four restaurants of two American fast food chains, a Norwegian cellphone company’s office, a five-star hotel, a cinema, a theatre, a number of petrol pumps and various shops.
Around 500 vehicles, mainly cars, were ransacked while at least 75 motorcycles and 10 cars were burnt by the protesters. All traffic signals on The Mall, Egerton Road, Hall Road, Laxmi Chowk, Bhati Chowk and some on Ferozpur Road and Multan Road were broken completely by the angry youths. Looting also took place when rioters broke into some offices and buildings, especially that of the cellphone company.
The shutdown, which was observed in other parts of the province, saw violent scenes in Faisalabad and Sargodha. Nearly three dozen people were arrested in Sargodha for trying to block traffic on the Motorway.
In Lahore, thousands of people, including men from various religious parties and seminary students, had taken to the street on a strike call given by the Tahaffuz Namoos-i-Risalat Mahaz, a group of small Sunni parties. A seminary, Jamia Naeemia, in Garhi Shahu had been a centre of activities for the past week to make the strike a success.
By the time the authorities called in Pakistan Rangers it was too late as the situation in the street had turned ugly. Eyewitnesses say the police deputed along the route of the rally acted just as onlookers. Yelling helplessly to calm down the protesters, a constable at the shooting scene where the two youngsters got bullet injuries was heard saying: “I am nobody. I do not have any of my officers around. I do not even have a wireless set to convey the situation. I am helpless.”
Later, the riot police fired teargas shells and also baton-charged the protesters at a number of places, but there was a complete lack of coordination on the part of the law-enforcement agencies and the Punjab government. The rioting continued for about six hours on various roads, while the police kept pushing the groups of rioters back, sending them in various directions. No action was taken to round up the rioters.
“They (the organizers of the protest rallies) have not honoured their commitment. They had given us the assurance that they would remain peaceful,” city police chief DIG Khwaja Khalid Farooq told Dawn, during the rioting at the Charing Cross on The Mall. “It was not possible to depute force at each and every building,” he said.
Asked why had the police not stopped the rioters initially from rampaging on, and what was the strategy given to the police by the government, he replied: “We will talk about that later.” Lahore operations police chief Aamir Zulfikar Khan, who was present there, was not in a good shape after being held hostage for 15 minutes by the rioters. He was later shifted to the Services Hospital for treatment.
Responding to the strike call, thousands of people had gathered near the shrine of the Data Ganj Bukhsh. They turned violent soon after the rally began. Lower Mall police station was the first spot that fell prey to the protesters’ anger; it was pelted with stones.
The police blocked the protesters when they attempted to storm into the district courts building. They damaged a hoarding depicting a message and a photo of President Pervez Musharraf.
The protesters then marched on to The Mall, where they ransacked an American fast food chain restaurant, a bank and burnt two vehicles. On reaching the GPO Chowk, the protesters split into groups of 20 to 50 each and began vandalising shops.
One of the groups put a hotel and a car showroom with four new cars inside on fire at the Dyal Singh Mansion near the Regal Chowk. Not far away from this scene, another group first ransacked another American fast food restaurant, two banks and the office of a Norwegian cellular phone company; later, they torched the buildings. Having three floors each, all the four buildings were reduced to ashes long before fire tenders got to the scene.
The rioters broke glasses of shops on both sides of The Mall and on reaching the Charing Cross, they vandalised the building of another bank and burnt two more vehicles.
The police resorted to teargas shelling, but the protesters attacked the Punjab Assembly building. Police deployed inside the assembly building first tried to block the rioters, but then took to their heels. The protesters entered the building and broke all windowpanes before setting a portion of the assembly building on fire. The damage caused to the building was not extensive.
The rioters damaged the glass-fitted facade of the main PIA town office.
At the next intersection on Egerton Road, the protesters broke all traffic signals and windscreens and windows of every car parked on both sides of the road. A group marched towards the Lahore Stock Exchange and threw stones and bricks on the building. The pelting also damaged around 10 cars parked inside the building.
Yet another American fast food restaurant became their next target. They vandalised the outlet and a bank on the first floor in the LDA Plaza. Nineteen motorcycles parked outside the food outlet were set on fire. At least 40 cars parked nearby were completely damaged by the rioters.
Another group of protesters attacked another bank near the food chain where the guard opened fire. The rioters put on fire the bank, four cars and around 21 motorcycles parked on the premises were reduced to ashes.
The vehicles of the Edhi Foundation made announcements through mega-phones, asking the people inside the commercial buildings to remain calm and start evacuating the damaged buildings. Scores of people, including women, ran down the stairs from the bank’s building, which also housed some multi-nationals’ offices.
The police and Pakistan Rangers later rushed to the spot, but they only pushed the rioters out in other directions without making any effort to round them up. The protesters put an office of a travel agency on fire before dispersing.
Some of the rioters reached Laxmi Chowk and vandalised over 20 shops and food outlets there. They also torched a traffic police kiosk. At the Bhati Chowk, another group of rioters torched a cinema house and ransacked a theatre besides damaging several vehicles.
Reports from other parts of the city said rioters damaged two petrol pumps and a bakery in Nawankot besides attacking vehicles on various roads.
When it was all over, District Nazim Mian Amer Mahmood and the Lahore DCO Mian Ejaz reached The Mall and inspected the damage. The police present there again baton-charged smaller groups of protesters, who had gathered there.
Till the time of the filing of this report, the police and Pakistan Rangers had been deployed in and around all important buildings in the city, mainly along The Mall and its surroundings. The police claimed having made 106 arrests.
Late at night, the Punjab IGP was presiding over a meeting to evolve a line of action. Registration of cases against the rioters was in progress.