LAHORE, Feb 26: Police sealed all entry points into the city on Sunday in a bid to prevent opposition activists from reaching Lahore to participate in a rally called by the Qaumi Majlis-i-Mushawarat.
Later, police fired teargas at a number of places when political activists defied a ban on holding rallies and tried to reach The Mall to protest against the blasphemous cartoons printed by a number of European newspapers. Clashes between protesters and law-enforcement-personnel left some police officials and dozens of rioters injured.
The police took into custody Qazi Husain Ahmad, Imran Khan and other leaders, MPs and activists of the opposition parties. The leaders and workers were arrested as they tried to reach Nasser Bagh, the venue from where the rally was planned to start and go on to the Punjab Assembly building on The Mall. By evening, police confirmed the arrest of over 600 opposition leaders and workers.
At least 15,000-strong police and six battalions of Rangers had been deployed around seminaries, mosques, main offices of religious parties and on all important roads and intersections in the city since early morning.
All roads leading to The Mall, Multan Road, the Lower Mall, Ravi Road and other main roads had also been barricaded and fenced to prevent entry of protesters for the rally from Nasser Bagh after talks between the authorities and organisers on the proposed route failed late on Saturday night.
The authorities were ready to allow the rally to come up to the Neela Gumbad Chowk but the organisers wanted the route to be extended to the GPO Chowk on The Mall.
MMA president Qazi Husain Ahmad, leading a few hundred activists, came out of Mansoora at 2pm. Police authorities told him to retreat saying that they did not want to arrest him and allowing him to proceed to Nasser Bagh was out of question.
The Jamaat leader refused to withdraw, saying he would prefer to be arrested.
Police resorted to a mild baton charge in which the Jamaat leader also was hit once. Later, the rally was allowed to march up to the Multan Chungi on Multan Road, where the MMA president and a couple of other leaders were taken into custody. The rest of the participants dispersed peacefully after holding a public meeting there.
The MMA chief was later shifted to Mansoora, which was declared a sub-jail.
MMA leaders including Liaquat Baloch, Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Haideri and Pir Ijaz Hashmi led a procession on the Ferozepur Road when a heavy police contingent stopped their advance at Ichhra.
Tehrik-i-Insaaf president Imran Khan was taken into custody at the MAO College Chowk when he and his party workers tried to go to Nasser Bagh.
In a bid to approach The Mall, demonstrators divided themselves into small groups and hundreds of them clashed with police at Istanbul Chowk, Old Anarkali, Neela Gumbad and Dyal Singh Mansion, close to the Regal.
In Old Anarkali, police used teargas against advancing demonstrators, mostly belonging to the Jamaatud Daawa, and resorted to baton charge.
Police also beat up workers of a popular snack shop when half a dozen protesters took refuge in its basement during teargas shelling. Everyone present at its premises was rounded up.
At Neela Gumbad, the law-enforcers initially retreated when they were targeted with firecrackers and sling-shots. However, after the arrival of reinforcements and use of teargas, the demonstrators were repelled.
A group of protesters, led by Ahmad Salman Baloch, son of Liaquat Baloch, armed with sticks, clubs and slings came out of the buildings behind Dyal Singh Mansion and reached The Mall.
They shouted slogans against papers which published the caricatures and Gen Pervez Musharraf. Some policemen and dozens of protesters were hurt during the half-hour encounter. About 100 of the protesters were arrested, while the rest managed to flee.
The last clash between the rioters and police was reported after 5.30pm at the Mozang Adda, where a handful of demonstrators hurled stones and bricks on the police, forcing the latter to retreat.