A Pakistani cleric Tuesday urged thousands of protesters massed in Islamabad to camp out for another day, defiant after police fired tear gas and the government ignored his ultimatum to disband parliament.
Muslim preacher Tahir-ul Qadri delivered a frenzied address to an estimated 25,000 people waving flags and chanting near the parliament building, blaming a corrupt government for the ills of a country beset by a fragile economy and Islamist violence.
He led his followers into the heavily fortified capital overnight, the climax of a 38-hour journey through towns and villages from the eastern city of Lahore, where they were showered with rose petals by supporters who lined the streets.
One intelligence official told AFP that there were around 25,000 people in the crowd, which would make it the largest political protest in Islamabad since the main ruling Pakistan Peoples Party took office after elections in 2008.
“I want to ask you to stay until tomorrow. I’m going to stay,” Qadri declared in his second address to the crowd since the early hours, speaking from inside a bullet-proof box.
Police earlier clashed with stone throwers and protesters brandishing sticks, shooting into the air and firing tear gas.
Demonstrators smashed vehicle windows as they continued their march and reached the edge of the heavily fortified “Red Zone”, which houses parliament and Western embassies that closed on Tuesday.
Eight police were hurt in the clashes, doctor Tanvir Afsar Malik, a spokesman for the Federal Government Services Hospital, told AFP.
Organisers of the rally accused police of opening fire, of attempting to arrest the cleric and of trying to provoke them into violence.
“They opened fire on Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri’s car and tried to smash the windows,” said Qadri spokesman Shahid Mursaleen.
But Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the protesters were carrying weapons and had opened fire on police. He accused Qadri of “bulldozing” an agreement with the authorities for a peaceful rally.
Military helicopters circled overhead as the protesters gathered near parliament.
The legislature is due to be dissolved in mid-March before elections in mid-May.
But Qadri wants a caretaker government set up immediately in consultation with the military and judiciary to enact reforms so that “honest people” have a chance of being elected in May.
His demands are seen by critics as a ploy by elements of the establishment, particularly the armed forces, to delay the elections and sow political chaos in a country that was ruled by the military for decades.
“I advise the administration, government employees and security forces, don’t be afraid… by tomorrow the government will have been changed, so don’t worry, I have come here to free you from this slavery,” Qadri told the crowd overnight.
The influential cleric, who runs an educational and religious organisation with networks all over the world, returned to Pakistan last month from years living in Canada, where he also has citizenship.
His supporters say his calls to end corruption and implement reforms could be the solution to endless problems in Pakistan, brought to the brink by a crippling energy crisis and years of Islamist bloodshed.
Mobile phone networks — sometimes used by Taliban militants to trigger bombs remotely — were suspended overnight as part of draconian security measures that have shut down much of the centre of Islamabad.
If held on schedule, the election will mark the first democratic transition of power between two civilian governments in Pakistan’s 65-year history, which has been marked by bloodless coups and extensive periods of military rule.
Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry said Tuesday that elections should be held on time and the Supreme Court “will not compromise” on the issue.