Pakistan Awami Tehreek and Police Battle , Live coverage , 18 June 2014
A violent clash between police and supporters of a Canada-based Pakistani cleric led to at least eight deaths the city of Lahore on Tuesday, officials said, in an incident that is likely to increase opposition pressure on the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
The standoff began when police attempted to remove road barriers at the secretariat of the Pakistan Awami Tehreek, a group led by Tahir ul Qadri, a charismatic cleric. Known for his fiery speeches against government corruption and his opposition to the Taliban, Mr. Qadri has vowed to launch a "people's revolution" against the current system of government, which he says is unjust.
In live comments broadcast on Pakistani news channels following Tuesday's clashes, which also resulted in 80 people being injured, Mr. Qadri accused the government of "state terrorism of the worst kind." He said PAT will seek justice through the courts.
"The martyrdom of our people today will bring down this government. They will meet their end, God willing," Mr. Qadri said.
There were conflicting accounts of how the standoff, which began at around 1:30
a.m. local time, turned violent. Police officials said that people inside the PAT secretariat, in the Model Town area of Lahore, attacked first.
"It was a routine operation against encroachments. It was like a no-go area, and residents had complained about it," Lahore police chief Shafique Ahmad said. "The workers there resisted, threw stones and petrol bombs. There was firing from snipers on the rooftop as well."
The PAT denied that his supporters had opened fire. "We have armed people, with legal weapons, but they are under strict orders not to fire. Even if they are fired upon, they are not supposed to return fire," Mr. Qadri said.
Footage aired on Pakistani TV channels showed policemen firing assault rifles and lobbing tear-gas canisters at protesters, who were seen throwing stones at the police.
Officials at the Jinnah Hospital in Lahore said at least 80 wounded people were brought in, most with bullet injuries. At least eight of them are in critical condition.
Mr. Qadri said more than a hundred of his supporters are missing. He accused the government of the Punjab province, of which Lahore is the capital, of enforced disappearances, and said his party will file a police report holding Prime Minister Sharif and senior politicians from the ruling party responsible.
A Punjab Police representative denied the allegation and said proper procedure was followed for all arrests.
"My heart is bleeding," Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, the prime minister's brother, told reporters, saying he will ensure the strongest possible punishment for those responsible for the deaths.
Mr. Qadri moved to Canada more than seven years ago after receiving death threats from militant groups. Tens of thousands of his supporters spent four days camped in the capital, Islamabad, in January last year in an attempt to pressure the government into carrying out election reforms. The sit-in ended after Mr. Qadri received assurances from a delegation of politicians from different political parties.
He plans to return to Pakistan on June 23 to launch what he calls a "people's revolution." Mr. Qadri and his party have offered no details about what exactly they plan to do.
The planned return of Mr. Qadri following Tuesday's bloodshed is likely to put more pressure on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's federal government, which has been accused by its key rival, cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, of rigging last year's general elections.
Critics have accused Mr. Qadri of receiving support from the country's powerful military to destabilize the democratic civilian government, a charge he has denied. On Tuesday, Mr. Qadri alleged that Mr. Sharif's government doesn't support the recently launched military operation to clear out Taliban militants from the North Waziristan tribal region on the Afghan border.
"They don't want to see the operation succeed. They have created chaos to harm national unity, to make the operation fail," Mr. Qadri said. "They only prolonged the peace talks so that they [militants] could strengthen themselves."
Mr. Sharif, who initially sought peace talks with the Taliban, Monday wholeheartedly endorsed the North Waziristan operation in a parliament speech, saying that the nation must stay united behind the military in the fight against terrorism.
In addition to the Pakistani Taliban, several militant groups, such as al Qaeda, the Afghan insurgents of the Haqqani Network and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan have bases in North Waziristan. Twenty-five militants were killed in airstrikes there on Tuesday, the military said in a statement.