Pakistani security forces arrested hundreds of Islamic hard-liners and virtually sealed off the capital Islamabad today, before using gunfire and tear gas to disperse a Prophet Mohammed cartoon protest that had been banned by the government after a wave of deadly riots.
Elsewhere in the Muslim world, demonstrators with wooden staves and stones tried unsuccessfully to storm the US Embassy in Indonesia, while tens of thousands rallied in the Turkish city of Istanbul and complained about negative Western perceptions of Islam.
Troops patrolled the deserted streets of the northern Nigerian town of Maiduguri, where thousands of Muslims attacked Christians and burned churches on Saturday, killing at least 15 people during a protest against the cartoons. Most of the victims were beaten to death by rioters.
The cartoons published by a Danish newspaper in September and reprinted by other Western publications have caused outrage among Muslims, and mass protests have turned increasingly violent and claimed at least 45 lives worldwide: including 11 in Afghanistan, and 10 on Friday in the Libyan coastal city of Benghazi during riots outside the Italian consulate – apparently sparked by a right-wing Italian minister who wore a T-shirt with a prophet caricature.
Anxious to avoid a repeat of riots that killed five people in two Pakistani cities last week, thousands of police and paramilitary forces, some in armoured personnel carriers, others behind sandbag bunkers, were deployed in and around Islamabad to block a planned rally organised by a coalition of hard-line Islamic parties, Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) or United Action Forum. The MMA sympathises with the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan and is fiercely anti-US.
Authorities mounted roadblocks around the capital and declared they would arrest anyone joining a gathering of more than five people.
Opposition leader Maulana Fazlur Rahman, who denounced the government ban as unconstitutional, was allowed to stage a small rally with eight other opposition lawmakers and a few supporters. They chanted “God is great!” and “Any friend of America is a traitor”.
But police fired tear gas and warning gunshots to quell hundreds of other protesters, who attempted to join them and then enter the diplomatic enclave where most foreign embassies are located. The three-hour clash left the street littered with rocks and spent tear gas shells. An Associated Press reporter saw two injured police, one bleeding from his head, and several injured protesters.
Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao said police used tear gas not gunfire. He said police had arrested between 100 and 150 people in the city since late on Saturday.
Authorities made hundreds of arrests to pre-empt the protest. Overnight, police raided homes and offices, rounding up about 300 people in the nearby city of Rawalpindi ad the eastern hub of Lahore, including some lawmakers. Qazi Hussain Ahmad, a top MMA leader, was confined to his Lahore residence and others were detained or told to stay at home, police said.
“These people could create problems of law and order,” said Chaudhry Shafqaat Ahmed, chief investigator of Lahore police.
In Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, police said 15,000 MMA supporters, most wearing white shrouds of mourning, splashed with red paint to symbolise their willingness to die defending the prophet’s honour, rallied peacefully.
Among them was 12-year-old boy, Amar Ahmed, who carried a sign that read, “O Allah, give me courage to kill the blasphemer.”
Separately, hundreds of Muslims torched a church in the southern city of Sukkur. No worshippers were inside at the time, but one person was hurt afterward when police fired tear gas.
Local police chief Akbar Arian said the unrest was sparked not by the prophet cartoons but allegations a local Christian had burned pages of Islam’s holy book, the Koran – another sign of the sectarian tensions often at play in this overwhelmingly Muslim nation.
Meanwhile, in Indonesia about 400 people marched to the heavily fortified US Embassy in central Jakarta behind a banner that read: “We are ready to attack the enemies of the prophet.”
Brandishing wooden staves and lobbing stones, they tried to storm the gates. They also set fire to US flags and a poster of US President George Bush, and smashed the windows of a guard outpost before dispersing after a few minutes.
The US Embassy condemned the attack as “thuggery”.
In Istanbul, tens of thousands joined a protest organised by the Islamic Felicity Party, whose leaders shouted over loudspeakers that the massive crowd symbolised the anger of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims and urged them to “resist oppression.” Protesters chanted slogans against the Denmark, Israel and the US.
Ethem Erkovan, a 47-year old protester, who held a banner in one hand and his daughter in the other, accused Western nations of maligning Islam. “They are the ones who are trying to depict the expanding Islamic community as terrorists, though all we want is peace,” he said.