ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan called in the army to restore order on Saturday, hours after a violent clash between police and crowds protesting an omitted reference to the Prophet Muhammad in a parliamentary bill left six dead and many dozens wounded, state TV reported.
The Interior Ministry did not specify when the troops would be deployed, and no soldiers were visible on the streets late Saturday.
Supporters of an Islamist group have been camped out at a key intersection outside the capital for the last 20 days, and the protest has triggered similar demonstrations across the country.
Hundreds of police in riot gear moved in to clear the intersection linking Islamabad with the garrison city of Rawalpindi after a deadline expired at midnight, doctors at local hospitals said.
The violence sent scores of police and protesters to hospitals with injuries caused by stoning and respiratory problems from tear gas. Hospital officials said near 200 people were hurt, most of them police.
Dr. Masood Safdar of Benazir Bhutto Hospital said five civilians were shot and killed. Dr. Tariq Niazi of the Holy Family Hospital confirmed the death of a young man who was shot in head.
News of the police intervention spread quickly, prompting sympathizers in cities round the country to take to the streets in a show of solidarity with the Islamabad protesters. The situation prompted the country's regulatory body for electronic media to take TV broadcasts off the air. Key social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were also blocked. Government officials were not immediately available for comment.
The supporters of the Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah party, who have been camped out at the intersection for the last 20 days, are demanding the resignation of a law minister over an omitted reference to the prophet in a parliamentary bill. The minister, Zahid Hamid, apologized for the omission — a phrase saying that Muhammad is the last prophet in Islam — saying it was a clerical error that was later corrected.
But protest leaders were adamant and refused to clear the intersection unless the law minister resigned.
Saturday's action came after a court ordered an end to the protest because it was disrupting daily life.
Television footage showed police initially taking control of the bridge where the demonstrators were camped out. Some protesters could be seen throwing stones at police. The images showed an area engulfed in thick smoke from tear gas and black smoke from burned tents.
Later in the morning, seminary students from Rawalpindi reinforced the demonstrators who pushed back police and Frontier Constabulary forces. Witnesses said a group of baton-carrying protesters snatched a tear gas gun and a few shells from a constable and lobbed them at police.
Enraged protesters also torched three police vans, two civilian vehicles, three two motorcycles and damaged two television station vehicles. They also ransacked a newly built metro bus terminal near the venue.
Later in the day, more supporters joined protesters at the site, and civil administrators met to come up with a solution.
Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal, meanwhile, told state television that the government had shown patience in dealing with the protesters.
"The administration is taking action under court order but still we are open for talks with them," he said, referring to the protesters. Ahsan said that some among the protesters wanted to create chaos and destabilization in the country.
Some protesters who escaped the operation later gathered at a main street in Rawalpindi blocking it and suspending traffic by throwing stones at moving vehicles.
In Karachi, groups gathered at three crucial venues blocking streets in protest against the police action in Islamabad. When police used tear gas to disperse them amid the traffic rush hours, protesters threw stones wounding 20 people, including two journalists.
Protesters also took to the streets in Lahore, Faisalabad, Multan, Khanewal, Layyah, Vihari, Dera Ghazi Khan and others cities in Punjab province and in the northwestern city of Peshawar, as well as in southern city of Hyderabad, to show solidarity with the Islamabad protesters.
In Lahore, an unruly mob torched a vehicle and damaged others with stoning and staged sit-ins at four key areas in the city.
Malik Mohammad Ahmed, the spokesman for Punjab government, said enraged protesters in Rawalpindi attacked the residence of the former interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar, damaging the main gate. He added that they wounded lawmaker Javed Latif in Shaikhupura, hitting him in the head with a stone, and that a furious crowd attacked Law Minister Zahid Hamid's villa in Pasroor, ransacking the place.
Associated Press writers Zaheer Babar in Lahore, Pakistan, Adil Jawad in Karachi, Pakistan, and Iram Asim in Multan, Pakistan, contributed to this report.