The overnight violence raised the stakes in the two-week sit-in led by opposition politician Imran Khan and fiery cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri, which earlier saw demonstrators march past roadblocks to set up camp outside of Pakistan’s parliament.
They demand prime minister Nawaz Sharif step down over their allegations of massive voting fraud in the election that brought him into office last year in the country’s first democratic transfer of power.
Backed by parliament and many political parties, Sharif has refused to step down as negotiators have tried to convince Qadri and Khan to end their protests.
Late on Saturday night, protesters headed toward the prime minister’s residence. When the crowd started removing shipping containers used as barricades, police fired salvos of tear gas that forced the crowds back. Authorities said they had no choice but to use force.
However, the protesters started regrouping at daybreak yesterday and made repeated attempts to force their way through heavy deployments of police and barricades to reach the premier’s residence. Police strengthened their lines and responded by lobbing tear gas canisters.
Nearly 400 people — including women, children, and police officers — were admitted to local hospitals, officials said.
One person drowned in a ditch after he was in a crowd bombarded with tear gas, while two others died from wounds related to rubber bullets, said Wasim Khawaja, a senior official at Islamabad’s main hospital.
The protests began with a march from the eastern city of Lahore on Pakistan’s Independence Day on August 14. Mr Khan and Mr Qadri had called for millions of protesters to join, but crowds have not been more than tens of thousands.
The demonstrations signify the starkest threat to Sharif’s third term as prime minister. His previous term ended with a military coup and his exile. This turn in office has seen equally contentious relations with the country’s powerful army.
Sharif vowed he would not step down, but if violence continues it could undermine his authority.