Pakistan on Sunday called in the Army to restore order after violent clashes erupted across the country between police and protesters belonging to hardline religious groups, leaving six people dead and more than 200 others injured in the capital.
Violence spread to other parts of the country after the police aided by paramilitary Rangers and Frontier Constabulary on Saturday lunched a massive operation in Islamabad against activists of Tehreek-i-Khatm-i-Nabuwwat, Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah and Sunni Tehreek Pakistan religious groups who had been blocking a key highway to Islamabad for nearly three weeks.
Police and paramilitary forces fired tear gas shells and rubber bullets at the protesters to disperse them.
However, the security forces pulled back after the crackdown turned deadly.
At least six people were killed in clashes in Islamabad on Saturday, the Dawn reported. It also said that no security personnel was killed but at least nine senior police officers were injured, including Rawalpindi city police chief Israr Abbasi.
According to health officials, more than 200 people, including at least 95 security personnel, were injured in the clashes and have been shifted to various hospitals.
Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi chaired a high-level meeting today to review the prevailing security situation in the country.
Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Inter-Services Intelligence chief Lt General Naveed Mukhtiar, interior minister Ahsan Iqbal and Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif attended the meeting.
The meeting decided to make another effort for peaceful ending of the protests, official sources said, adding that it was also decided to hold talks with religious leaders to find an amicable solution to the problem.
It was decided that the army would protect the sensitive buildings and departments in Islamabad.
The decision was taken due to fresh protests in different parts of the countries against the crackdown on clerics laying siege to capital Islamabad, official sources said.
Police officials said that major cities were under stress due to blockade of major roads. In some places markets were also closed.
The Interior Ministry last night issued a statutory regulatory order to authorise the deployment of the army to control the law and order situation in the capital.
General Bajwa was on a visit to the United Arab Emirates and cut short his trip to reach the country on Saturday night.
Earlier, he spoke to Abbasi over telephone and suggested to handle the protests peacefully 'avoiding violence from both sides as it is not in national interest and cohesion'.
Meanwhile, the government has restored news and TV channels which were taken off-air yesterday for showing live the police crackdown against the protestors.
The decision to restore the channels was taken in the meeting chaired by Abbasi, officils said.
Following the decision, Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) issued a notification that it had decided to 'withdraw Authority's earlier decision of November 25 wherein transmission licenses of all the News and Current Affairs satellite TV channels were suspended'.
The access to popular social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube was also blocked on Saturdday to stem the spiralling violence.
Pakistan Broadcasters Association representing electronic media had condemned the action against the media.
The protesters have been laying siege to the capital for about three weeks demanding removal of Law Minister Zahid Hamid for changes in a law related to the Khatm-i-Nabuwwat (finality of prohpethood) oath in the Elections Act 2017.
They alleged the action undermined Islamic beliefs and linked it to blasphemy.
The government has already amended the law and restored the original oath but the hardline clerics refused to call off the protests until the minister was sacked.
The unrest also spread to several cities where protesters have blocked major roads, resulting in clashes with police.
Dozens of people were injured in Karachi and at other places.
Minister of Interior Ahsan Iqbal chaired a high-level security meeting on Friday night but failed to reach any decision about further operation as senior officials of Islamabad administration and police warned about loss of human lives, according to sources in the interior ministry.
The protesters emboldened by failure of government upped the ante and demanded resignation of the government, according to report on Geo TV website.
There are reports that ruling Pakistan Muslims Leauge-Nawaz was discussing the option of removing law minister to pacify the protests.
The minister is already under immense pressure after an attack on Saturday at his residence in Pasroor area of Sialkot district in Punjab.
Opposition Tehreek-e-Insaf have also increased pressure on government and its secretary general Jehangir Tareen demanded resignation of interior minister for mishandling the operation.
The party chief Imran Khan has demanded resignation of Prime Minister and interior ministry and given a call for fresh elections.
IMAGE: Police fire tear gas during clashes with protesters at Faizabad junction in Islamabad. Photograph: Stringer/Reuters