RAWALPINDI, Nov 9: Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s plan to show her party’s street power in the city on Friday lost utterly to police power. Police blocked all roads — even alleys — leading to Liaquat Bagh to prevent anyone from reaching the historic venue where she had to hold a rally to mobilise resistance to the emergency rule proclaimed by Gen Pervez Musharraf as army chief — and enforced as president — a week ago.
Pakistan People’s Party workers and supporters who tried to break through the barriers were beaten back by policemen using batons, tear gas and rubber bullets.
Hundreds of PPP workers were arrested for defying a ban on public rallies imposed under the emergency rule.
Though the street battles between the police and the PPP Jiyalas were fought mainly in a wide area surrounding Liaquat Bagh, almost the entire city wore a deserted look, helped by a public holiday declared by the government in honour of Allama Iqbal - the philosopher poet and dreamer of Pakistan.
In contrast to the action-packed inner city, the cantonment areas remained completely calm, though traffic was below normal and business activities almost non-existent.
Businesses on Murree Road remained closed as police had sealed it off completely by putting heavy containers, carts, trucks, dumpers at the mouth of every lane and street connecting with the main road and business centre of Rawalpindi.
Police denied passage even to sick people who wanted to go to the big hospitals located in the vast affected area, like RGH, Holy Family and District Headquarters Hospital.
Malik Tahir, an old man from out of town with eye problem, was seen pleading with policemen to let him proceed to RGH but to no avail. His pleas did not work with even District Police Officer Saud Aziz.
Hotels on the Murree Road and in the vicinity of Liaquat Bagh, had already been emptied of their guests overnight on the orders of the city police.
More than 7,500 policemen in riot gear had been deployed in the city to stop the banned PPP rally from taking place.
Clashes between PPP workers and police erupted at different places before noon but died soon. However, hide-and-seek between them, and joined by Jamaat Islami workers, continued at Fawara Chowk and Committee Chowk even after sunset.
The two battlefields were littered with bricks and stones and tear gas hung in the air. The protesters set old tyres on fire on Iqbal Road and Raja Bazaar.
There was also the strange sight of some protesters acting friendly with the policemen and laughing at the funny situation as street boys played cricket nearby.
Residents in the battle areas suffered more from the heavy tear-gas shelling than the protesters but some were seen giving water and other aids to the protesters to overcome the effects of tear-gas.
As soon as the police force was withdrawn from Committee Chowk after dusk, a large number of PPP activists, led by PPP MNA Zamarud Khan, appeared on the scene and started marching towards Liaquat Bagh. But the police swung back into action and forced them to disperse.
At one stage policemen stormed some houses in Arya Mohallah and dragged out some young people and drove them off to detention cells over the protests and pleadings of their families, eyewitnesses said.
Mediapersons too were stopped by police from going to the “hot spots” but were allowed to approach Liaquat Bagh soon after 1pm.
Benazir Bhutto however could not reach there, reportedly restrained by a 30-day detention notice served on her when she came out of her house in Islamabad house to leave for Rawalpindi. But the government said she was restrained by her personal security.
Jamaat Islami chief Qazi Hussain Ahmed had also called for a protest on Friday against the imposition of emergency and large scale arrest of political workers.
A large number of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz workers and activist also took out protest rally at Jamia Masjid road after Friday prayers. They carried banners bearing anti-government slogans.
The PML-N protesters dispersed after police fired tear- gas shells and charged at them with batons.
In Islamabad all efforts by the PPP leaders and activists to break the police siege around Ms Bhutto’s residence remained unsuccessful.
The police not only nailed the barbed wire at both ends of the Street 19 of the posh F-8 sector but also blocked the street with APCs, prisoner vans, fire brigades, and ambulances.
The personnel in anti-riot gear not only cordoned off the street 19, but also laid down barbed wire and iron barricades at both end off the street. Hund-reds of personnel were also deployed at Kohistan Road and street 20.
However, some unidentified persons riding in a car succeeded to break the police siege and reached near Caltex pump. They laid tyres in the middle of the road and set them on fire before vanishing from the scene.