ISLAMABAD: The Pakistan government today called in the army after clashes broke out here when police and paramilitary forces cracked down on protesters from hardline religious groups who were blocking a key highway to the capital, leaving over 200 people injured.
The army would be deployed for an indefinite period to maintain peace in Islamabad, according to a notification issued by the interior ministry.
The government used its powers under article 245 of the Constitution to call in the army in aid of the civil administration.
The development came hours after Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa spoke to Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi over the telephone and discussed the security situation.
The government also ordered suspension of private TV channels and blocked popular social media sites as police and paramilitary personnel fought pitched battles with activists of Tehreek-i-Khatm-i-Nabuwwat, Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY) and Sunni Tehreek Pakistan (ST) who torched vehicles and attacked houses of political leaders.
However, the protesters regrouped again and continued their siege of the capital that started about three weeks ago, demanding sacking of Law Minister Zahid Hamid over changes in a law related to the Khatm-i-Nabuwwat (finality of prophethood) 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 of the protests until the minister is sacked.
The siege played havoc with the over half-a-million commuters who daily travel between Islamabad and Rawalpindi.
The government was reluctant to use force, but launched the operation after the Islamabad High Court yesterday issued contempt of court notice against Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal for failing to implement orders to clear the roads.
Islamabad city magistrate yesterday issued a warning to protesters to disperse by midnight or face consequences.
More than 8,000 personnel of police and paramilitary Rangers and Frontier Constabulary launched the crackdown to clear the Faizabad interchange linking Islamabad with its international airport and the garrison city of Rawalpindi.
In the morning hours, it looked like the police would clear the roads but the protesters regrouped by mid-day to re-occupy the interchange bridge, forcing the authorities to suspend the operation temporarily.
They also pelted stones on security personnel who used batons and teargas shells to disperse them.
According to health officials, more than 200 people, including at least 95 security personnel, were injured in the clashes and shifted to various hospital in the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi.
At least one policeman reportedly died of a head injury, but the government has so far not confirmed the death.
Private media reported that two protesters were also killed in the clashes, but it could not be independently confirmed.
TV footage showed police firing teargas shells and security personnel in riot gear charging at the protesters, dozens of whom were arrested and shifted to various police stations.
Protesters also burnt some vehicles and thrashed several policemen and other security personnel.
The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) ordered media houses to stop live coverage and temporarily suspended several channels, including Geo TV, for failing to follow the directive.
Pakistan also blocked popular social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, to stop protesters from uploading provocative messages.
Violent protests were also reported from several other cities including Karachi and Lahore.
In the commercial hub of Karachi, at least 28 people were injured, according to local police.
Protesters attacked the house of Law Minister Hamid in Pasroor area in Punjab's Sialkot district but no one was injured as the minister and his family were not present.
The rioters also attacked the house of former interior minister Nisar Ali Khan in Faizabad area of Rawalpindi.
They damaged the gate of his house and tried to enter the premises, but were prevented by police.
Mian Javed Latif, a lawmaker of ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, was thrashed by protesters in Sheikhupura in Punjab and was being treated for injuries in hospital.
In the midst of the challenging law and order situation, Interior Minister Iqbal alleged Indian involvement in the unrest, saying the protesters had "contacted India" and that the government was probing it.
"Why they did it (contacted India), we are looking into it. They (protesters) have inside information and resources that are being used against the state," he said.
Iqbal said the government was implementing the court's orders to disperse the protesters.
"We are trying to clear the area with minimum violence, but we also need to ensure the fundamental rights of people of the twin cities," he said.
A military spokesman said Army Chief General Bajwa had talked to Prime Minister Abbasi and urged for a peaceful solution to the crisis.
"COAS (chief of army staff) telephoned PM. Suggested to handle Islamabad Dharna (sit-in) peacefully avoiding violence from both sides as it is not in national interest and cohesion," spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor tweeted.
Days earlier, the Islamabad High Court had given a 24- hour deadline to the government to clear the roads which was later extended till Thursday.
However, the court yesterday expressed strong displeasure at the government for failing to take action against the protesters.