ISLAMABAD: Pakistani authorities today deferred by 24 hours the operation against protesters led by hardline clerics blocking two busy highways in the capital, as the earlier deadline for them to disperse peacefully or face a crackdown came to an end this morning.
About 2,000 activists of Tehreek-i-Khatm-i-Nabuwwat, Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYR) and the Sunni Tehreek Pakistan (ST) for about two weeks have been blocking the Islamabad Expressway and Murree Road that connect Islamabad with its only airport and the garrison city of Rawalpindi.
Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal said the government has decided to give talks one last chance and convince the protesters to disperse peacefully instead of resorting to force.
"The government is trying to deal with the situation. We will wait for the outcome of the talks with leaders of protesters," he said.
Iqbal said Senator Raja Zafarul Haq will head the negotiating team and expressed hope that he would succeed.
Hundreds of supporters of the TLYR have blocked the main road to Islamabad, threatening violence if Law Minister Zahid Hamid is not sacked.
They blame the minister for changes to an electoral oath (Khatm-i-Nabuwwat or finality of the Prophethood) that they allege amounts to blasphemy. The government has said the issue arose due to a clerical error.
The government had buckled under pressure and restored the oath to its original form on Thursday after the National Assembly passed the amendment to the law.
The government had come under criticism for letting the protests linger on despite hardships faced by commuters but it balked away from use of force due to fears of a backlash by extremists.
However, authorities acted after the Islamabad High Court yesterday ordered the city administration to clear the roads and issued a 24-hour deadline for protesters to disperse.
Hundreds of security personnel in riot gear were deployed to take action against the protesters.
The protesters, however, refused to call off the demonstration and demanded that Law Minister Hamid be removed for allegedly orchestrating the changes in the electoral oath.