Islamabad. Up to 50 people were injured on Thursday as police clashed with thousands of protesters, some carrying the banners of extremist groups, demonstrating in Islamabad against an anti-Islam film.
Officers fired tear gas and live rounds as the demonstrators, many armed with wooden clubs, tried to reach Islamabad’s heavily-guarded diplomatic enclave, home to most Western embassies, including the US, British and French missions.
The government called in the army to protect the enclave after protesters broke through a barrier of shipping containers set up by police to block a road leading to the area.
The crudely made “Innocence of Muslims,” produced by US-based extremist Christians, has triggered protests in at least 20 countries since excerpts were posted online, and more than 30 people have been killed in violence linked to the film.
There have been dozens of demonstrations around Pakistan over the past week and at least two people have been killed, but Thursday was the first time protests in the capital had turned violent.
An initial demonstration of around 1,000 swelled to around 5,000 with the arrival of protesters carrying the flags of hard-line Islamist groups Jamaat-ud-Dawa, Jamaat-e-Islami and Sipah-e-Sahaba — which is banned by the Pakistan government.
Police fired tear gas and live rounds as the protesters, chanting “We are ready to die to safeguard the Prophet’s honor,” stormed the container barrier.
The firing scattered the crowd, but they returned to pelt officers with stones and breach the cordon, before torching a police post next to the nearby five-star Serena hotel.
The luxury hotel, much used by visiting Westerners, came under attack as a few demonstrators managed to enter the car park and damage vehicles, while others picked up tear gas shells fired by police and threw them into the Serena compound.
Doctor Razia Sultana of the Federal Government Services Hospital said at least 44 police and six civilians were hurt in the clashes, with the majority of injuries caused by stones and tear gas shells.
Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira said the government would protect the diplomatic enclave at all costs and accused political groups of trying to fan violence.
Pakistan has declared Friday a national holiday and “day of love for the Prophet” in response to “Innocence of Muslims” and called for peaceful protests.
“I appeal to the people to remain peaceful tomorrow as any violent protest will harm the country,” Kaira said.
“Indulgence in violence will not convey any positive message abroad.”
Student Asif Mehmood demanded police let protesters through to the US Embassy and urged harsh treatment for American pastor Terry Jones, who is notorious for past Koran-burning episodes and is reportedly connected to the film.
“Terry Jones and the filmmaker should be sternly punished for playing with the feelings of Muslims. We will not tolerate this blasphemy,” Mehmood said.
Fellow protester Rehan Ahmad said: “Islam is often ridiculed by America and the West and blasphemy is committed against our prophet in the name of freedom of expression.”
A boisterous crowd of around 4,000 staged a rally in the eastern city of Lahore, while demonstrations were also held in several other cities around Punjab province, including Gujranwala, Sialkot and Bahawalpur.
In Quetta, the capital of the troubled southwestern province of Baluchistan, some 2,000 students paraded on the main airport road before gathering outside the Quetta Press Club where they burnt US and Israeli flags.
Elsewhere in Baluchistan, around 100 Christians denounced the film in their own protest in the border town of Chaman, where trucks supplying NATO troops cross into Afghanistan.
They carried placards and banners that read “We are with Muslims against blasphemous film” and chanted “Down with America.”
Christians form a small minority in Pakistan’s 180 million population, 97 percent of whom are Muslim.