ISLAMABAD, Sept 1, (Agencies): Hundreds of protesters trying to topple Pakistan’s government briefly seized the state broadcaster on Monday, intensifying the political crisis gripping the nuclear-armed nation. Transmissions of the main Pakistani Television (PTV) were cut after protesters armed with clubs stormed the building in Islamabad’s high-security “red zone”, before being removed by security forces after around half an hour.
The dramatic occupation came after fresh street clashes between riot police and followers of opposition politician Imran Khan and populist cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri, in which officers were pelted with rocks and responded with teargas. Late on Sunday the powerful army called for a peaceful settlement of the political crisis that has shaken Pakistan and weakened the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Khan and Qadri led supporters to the capital on Aug 15 to try to oust Sharif over alleged election fraud, triggering a crisis that has raised the spectre of military intervention in a country ruled for half its history by the army.
The military urged the government and protesters to settle their differences peacefully, but warned it was “committed to playing its part in ensuring security of the state” after weekend clashes left three dead and hundreds injured. Sharif met the army chief General Raheel Sharif on Monday to discuss the crisis, military sources said. The crisis escalated on Saturday night when, after two weeks of charged but peaceful protests, violence erupted as followers of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) tried to storm Sharif’s official residence.
Fresh clashes erupted on Monday morning as heavy rain fell on the capital, when more than 3,000 demonstrators again tried to march on the building, an AFP journalist at the scene said. Protesters pelted riot police with stones and some smashed up motorbikes with wooden clubs. Police tried to respond with tear gas but the heavy rain appeared to make it ineffective. Some managed to breach the perimeter fences of some official buildings, but paramilitary security forces stopped them at the entrance to the PM’s house. Both Khan and Qadri appeared on the shipping containers they have used as stages to urge their supporters not to resort to violence. An AFP reporter saw more than 300 protesters, many armed with wooden clubs, enter the PTV building shouting anti-government slogans. Television footage showed some of them beating a photo of Sharif with sticks and spitting on it. Army and paramilitary forces cleared the building without violence — they were even cheered and applauded by the protesters as they left.
Both Khan and Qadri tried to distance themselves from the incident, saying their activists were not involved, though several were wearing PTI scarves and t-shirts. PTV managing director Mohammed Malick told AFP the protesters had “ransacked” the building. “They destroyed equipment and stole equipment. No one seriously injured but we’re pretty shaken up,” he said. After an emergency meeting of top brass in the garrison city of Rawalpindi on Sunday the army voiced support for democracy — but also stressed its own role in maintaining security.
A military statement opened with backing for the government but ended on a hawkish note, which a senior government official said reflected differing views within the army’s top brass. Pakistan’s last period of military rule ended in 2008. But the official said another coup remained “less likely”. Meanwhile, the United States on Monday called for restraint by all sides in Pakistan’s political crisis, saying protesters had a right to demonstrate peacefully but that it strongly opposed efforts to impose change through violence and destruction of property. “We have been carefully monitoring the demonstrations in Islamabad. We continue to urge all sides to refrain from violence, exercise restraint, and respect the rule of law,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, calling for peaceful dialogue. “Peaceful protest and freedom of expression are important aspects of democracy,” Psaki said in a statement. “Violence and destruction of private property and government buildings are not acceptable means of resolving political differences, however, and we strongly oppose any efforts to impose extra-constitutional change to the political system.”