Cleric says 7 supporters killed in Pakistan clash
LAHORE, Pakistan (AP) — Fighting between Pakistani security forces and supporters of a fiery anti-government cleric killed seven people as they were heading towards a planned demonstration in the city Lahore, the cleric claimed Saturday. Authorities have contested the cleric’s claim and put the death toll from clashes to two, including one police officer.
Cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri, who led anti-corruption protests in January 2013 that paralyzed Pakistan’s capital, has a network of mosques and religious centers across the country. His supporters briefly abducted six police officers in the fighting, which began Friday in Punjab province and continued into the next morning.
Supporters of the cleric had planned to hold a demonstration in Lahore on Sunday to protest the killing of 14 people in June during similar clashes and they were streaming towards the city from different directions when they encountered police roadblocks.
Qadri told reporters Saturday in Lahore that the clashes began when police opened fire on those coming for the protests and that seven of his supporters were killed and over a thousand wounded.
The government has dismissed his claim saying only one of Qadri’s supporters and a police officer were killed in the clashes.
Rana Mashood, the provincial minister of Punjab, said the fighting began when Qadri’s people tried to remove shipping containers being used as roadblocks, prompting police to fire tear gas.
Some 55 officers were wounded in the fighting, with one killed in clashes in Gujranwala district and one of Qadri’s supporters killed in Multan district, said Mashood, adding that 500 people were arrested.
Some eight police and private vehicles were set on fire in Sargodha when police tried to stop the crowds from crossing the barricades, he said.
Qadri asked his supporters to give up their efforts to reach to Lahore and instead directed them to hold protest rallies in their own areas.
Qadri struck a chord with people last year by attacking the state’s inability to solve problems such as poor electricity and unemployment. But his demand that the government be dissolved and replaced by a military-backed caretaker administration raised concerns that he was being used by the nation’s powerful army to delay parliamentary elections.
The cleric has denied having any connection to the army.
Authorities have placed shipping containers in the road around the capital, Islamabad, as well, ahead of a planned demonstration Thursday led by cricket star turned opposition politician Imran Khan, who is protesting alleged irregularities in the May 2013 elections in which his party came in third place.
In a bid to defuse the situation, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said he was ready to negotiate with Khan over his demands for a recount of certain national assembly seats.
“In democracy, all issues can be resolved through dialogues and this is the beauty of democratic system,” Sharif said Saturday. “I am open to negotiate with Imran Khan.”
But Khan has remained defiant.
“We can meet after August 14 ... our planned ‘Independence march’ to Islamabad will take place at all costs.”