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‘Fear and loathing’ in Islamabad

September 20, 2012

A riot policeman (L) backs off from demonstrators attempting to reach the US embassy during a protest against an anti-Islam film, Islamabad, Sept 20, 2012. — Photo by AFP

ISLAMABAD, Sept 20: As military helicopters started flying over residential areas in Islamabad and residents started receiving smses not to leave their homes, ‘fear and loathing’ — to borrow a term from the cult American journalist, Hunter S. Thompson   — gripped the residents of Islamabad.

The three most valid questions on everyone’s lips were: Who were these protestors? How did the protestors manage to get into the city? And then what really happened?

According to a Islamabad police officer, who didn’t want to be named, the first batch of students that came in the afternoon were students of H8, H9 colleges, joined by local public school students. The students started assembling in Aabpara at around 2:00pm and within minutes their numbers grew in the hundreds.

Later they marched towards Khayaban-e-Suhrawardy reaching Diplomatic Enclave and were intercepted in front of Ataturk Avenue-5 where a contingent of the police, ARU and ATS were deployed in front of the containers. However, the protestors, whose numbers were rising sharply, pushed the law enforcement personnel back to the second line of defence in front of Serena Hotel.

They were basically all students from Islamabad and the police were ‘initially’ able to keep them at a distance.

Mohammad Akbar, a second year student, told Dawn that “We have gathered here to stage a protest against the Anti-Muslim Film and lodge our complaint against its maker with the US embassy.

What added fuel to fire was the second batch of protestors, which according to a source in Islamabad police came from Rawalpindi. “They were in the thousands…” said a source, “and once they joined the protestors in Islamabad, they became lethal.”

The march from Rawalpindi was much more organised as religious parties and the trader community joined hands. Responding to a strike call issued by the All Pakistan Anjuman Tajran and religious parties, Rawalpindi’s businessmen kept their shutters down and public transporters stopped their wheels, observing a complete strike on Thursday after 2:00 pm.

Local religious parties, traders and public transporters had called a joint strike to protest the anti-Islam film.

Talking to Dawn, Transport Association Rawalpindi-Islamabad President Malik Sultan Awan said that more than 30,000 public transport vehicles including coaster, Hiaces and mini-buses came to a halt as to record the protests against the movie.

Traders Association President Chaudhry Imran told Dawn that the basic aim of the protest rally was to record their protest and give the message to those who committed “blasphemous act” that Muslims would not tolerate such action in future.

The Markazi Anjuman-e-Tajraan rally joined the madaris students at Chandani Chowk and managed to reached in Islamabad.

At Faizabad, the protesters brunt effigies of US President and US flags.

But then beyond Faizabad, why weren’t they stopped from entering Islamabad?

The security should have been full proof — at least that is the perception that was created a day before when the capital police placed 35 containers from different parts, including Tarnol and Sihala and put them at different roads leading towards the red zone.

But the police as well as the federal government is only interested in blaming Punjab for the mayhem. “The protestors should have been checked or controlled by Rawalpindi police but instead they were facilitated…That is the unfortunate part,” an Islamabad police source said.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik had called in the army for the security of Diplomatic Enclave.

A company comprising of 100 military personnel under supervision of a major of 111 Brigade was deployed at the Diplomatic Enclave.

Once the protestors reached the red zone in Islamabad “It was a fight to the finish between the Islamabad police — facilitated by the Rangers — and the protestors.”

At one stage a police contingent was trapped and they were retaliating with tear gas and batons, but the protestors attacked them from Aabpara and the Convention Centre side.

The policemen were pushed back from three different gaps at both ends of the road and the road divider, from where the protestors also crossed the first line of defence.

As a result the police restored to baton charge and massive shelling of tear gas which provoked the protestors and they started pelting stones. Besides, there were also physical scuffles.

“If we hadn’t put up a fight,” says a police officer almost out of breath, “the protestors would have burnt down the Diplomatic Enclave.”

The police toll has been heavy, total number of police injured: thirty eight, out of which three are Station House Masters (SHO’s).

The protestors also burnt three kiosks of the Rangers and police along with telephone boxes installed along roadsides.

The capital police does claim that the Inspector General Police (IGP) Bani Amin Khan and DC Amir Ahmed Ali were present at the Convention Centre throughout the protest and that they, with the help of some religious scholars, succeeded in diverting the mob towards Aabpara Chowk around 4:00pm.

The senior police officers reached a compromise with religious scholars that the protestors taken as prisoners would be released.

Around 6:30 pm protestors attempted from different sides to make a comeback but failed.

Regarding the role of Rawalpindi police, Regional Police Officer Capt (retired) Mohammad Zubari and City Police Officer Azhar Hameed Khokhar were not available for their comments.