The army has been called in by the Pakistani government to restore order following violent protests by Islamist groups which have left at least six people dead and around 200 injured.
The country’s Ministry of Interior authorised the military deployment as clashes between protesters and police spread from the capital Islamabad to other cities, with hundreds of police officers in riot gear firing tear gas and rubber bullets into crowds.
Early on Saturday, after a midnight deadline expired, police launched an operation to clear protesters from an intersection linking Islamabad with the garrison city of Rawalpindi, prompting other demonstrators to take to the streets in solidarity, bringing several major cities to a virtual standstill.
A medical professional, Dr Masood Safdar, said five citizens were brought into the Banazir Bhutto hospital already dead from bullet wounds, and Dr Tariq Niazi of the Holy Family Hospital confirmed the death of a young man shot in the head during the violence at Faizabad intersection and the surrounding area.
The Pakistani capital has been paralysed for weeks by those supporting firebrand Muslim cleric Khadim Hussain, who leads new hardline party, Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah.
The Islamist extremists have accused the country’s law minister of blasphemy against Islam and demanded his dismissal and arrest after he omitted a reference to the Prophet Mohammed in a parliamentary bill.
The minister, Zahid Hamid, apologised for the omission and said it was simply a clerical error which he later corrected.
The clashes came after a court ordered an end to the sit-in protest because it was disrupting daily life in and around Islamabad.
The police operation and reaction from protesters, who had camped out for the last 20 days, sent scores to hospital with wounds caused by stoning and respiratory problems from tear gas.
Hospital officials said almost 200 people were hurt – the majority of them police officers. At least 150 people are believed to have been arrested.
All television broadcasting has reportedly been suspended and social media sites including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are understood to have been blocked by the government.
The country’s military chief general Qamar Javed Bajwa telephoned Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi to call for the peaceful handling of the protest, according to a tweet by military spokesperson major general Asif Ghafoor.
Senior police officer Ismatullah Junejo said police were swiftly clearing a venue of around 300 protesters who ignored the final warning to disperse. He said none of the police carried firearms to avoid loss of life, instead using tear gas and a water cannon to disperse the protesters, although witnesses said a police van came under attack and was set on fire after two police officers aimed assault rifles at protesters.
“We are in our thousands. We will not leave. We will fight until end,” Tehreek-e-Labaik party spokesperson Ejaz Ashrafi told Reuters by telephone from the scene.
Tehreek-e-Labaik is one of two new ultra-religious political movements that have risen up in recent months ahead of the country’s elections due to be held before next summer.
Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal said the protests were part of a “conspiracy” to weaken the government, which is still run by the party of ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif – removed by the supreme court in July over financial irregularities.
“There are attempts to create a chaos in the country,” Mr Iqbal said on state-run Pakistan TV.
“I have to say with regret that a political party that is giving its message to people, based on a very sacred belief is being used in the conspiracy that is aimed at spreading anarchy in the country,” Mr Iqbal added.
In response to the escalating situation, opposition leader Imran Khan called for early elections, saying the “incompetent and dithering” administration had allowed a “complete breakdown of governance”.