Pakistan’s increasingly beleaguered government dismissed anti-government protesters as an “occupation force” after Islamabad plunged into further chaos today.
Demonstrators stormed the offices of the state television channel, and forced it from the air until they were ejected by troops and paramilitary forces. And clashes between protesters and police resumed this evening local time, with security personnel firing tear gas to repel demonstrators trying to reach the Prime Minister’s official residence.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is to address a joint session of the country’s parliament, a move widely interpreted as an attempt to show he is in control of a volatile and dangerous situation.
The clashes between protesters and police continued despite heavy rain. Local television channels showed images of men armed with wooden clubs running along Constitution Avenue, which leads through the centre of Islamabad. Reports said a senior police officer was seriously injured after being beaten.
In pictures: Pakistan protesters clash with police in Islamabad
In pictures: Pakistan protesters clash with police in Islamabad
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A supporter of Tahir ul-Qadri shouts slogans while soldiers from the Pakistan Rangers block a road leading to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's house, during the Revolution March in Islamabad
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Supporters of anti-government Muslim cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri chant slogans during a protest close to Prime Minister's home in Islamabad
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Pakistani protesters hold sticks and chant slogans after intruding the state television building in Islamabad
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Pakistani army soldiers secure the headquarters of state-owned Pakistani Television
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Pakistani soldiers and paramilitary forces entered the headquarters of the state television channel PTV in Islamabad after a crowd of protesters stormed the building and took the channel off the air
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Anti-government Muslim cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri delivers a speech during a protest near Prime Minister's home in Islamabad
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Pakistani supporters of Canadian cleric Tahir ul Qadri and cricket-turned politician Imran Khan hold sticks as they enter the headquarters of the state owned Pakistani Television (PTV) building during anti-government protests in Islamabad
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Supporters of Tahir ul-Qadri help a fellow supporter who is injured, during the Revolution March in Islamabad
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Pakistani supporters of Canadian cleric Tahir ul Qadri stand alongside soldiers after storming the headquarters of the state owned Pakistani Television (PTV) building during anti-government protests in Islamabad
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Soldiers from the Pakistan Rangers stop supporters of Tahir ul-Qadri, Sufi cleric and leader of political party Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), during Revolution March towards the prime minister's house in Islamabad
Earlier, protesters stormed into the offices of Pakistan Television (PTV), briefly forcing it off the air, until they were removed by troops.
“They have stormed the PTV office,” one news anchor said, just before the screen went blank, according to the Reuters news agency. “PTV staff performing their journalistic duties are being beaten up.”
The latest drama came after a weekend of clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces that left three people dead and around 200 requiring medical treatment.
The 20,000 or so demonstrators who have besieged Islamabad are part of two different protest groups. One is led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, who has claimed last year’s election, which Mr Sharif won handsomely, was rigged. The other group is lead by a Muslim cleric who usually lives in Canada, Tahir ul Qadri, who also claims Mr Sharif is corrupt.
Mr Khan, 61, has claimed his supporters are acting within their constitutional rights, but the government has dismissed this.
Senator Tariq Azim, a spokesman for Mr Sharif, told The Independent: “One expects better from Imran Khan, who has lived in London. Does he think he’d be able to do this in Downing Street? The police would move him on in two minutes. Yet he is telling his people, many of whom don’t know better, that this happens in other countries.”
He added: “This has become an occupation force. It is no longer a democratic protest.”
As is often the case in Pakistan, one pulsating uncertainty is what the powerful military may or may not do. On Sunday evening, the army chief, General Raheel Sharif, who is not related to the Prime Minister, summoned his senior commanders for a crisis meeting to discuss the deteriorating security situation in the capital.
In a statement released afterwards, the military said that while it reaffirmed its support for democracy it considered with “serious concern” the violent turn the protests had taken.
“It was once again reiterated that the situation should be resolved politically without wasting any time and without recourse to violent means,” the statement said. “[The] army remains committed to playing its part in ensuring the security of the state and will never fall short of meeting national aspirations.”
On Monday, the army chief met with the Prime Minister. One television channel claimed the general had asked the Premier to stand down but this was rapidly denied by a military spokesman
Mr Sharif was elected to his third term as Prime Minister in an general election held in May 2013, with Mr Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party coming second in many major cities. Mr Khan accepted the results of the election but called for a probe into alleged vote rigging.
He launched his so-called freedom protest after claiming the government and the election commission had failed to follow up on its agreement to launch an inquiry.
Many have suggested that the protesters may be receiving the support of the military. Both Mr Khan and Mr Qadri have denied such claims.
On Monday, a senior member of Mr Khan’s party, Javed Hashimi, who had broken with the party leadership over its decision to march towards the Premier’s residence, claimed the former cricketer had told officials: “We cannot move forward without the army.”
Mr Sharif has long had a difficult and testy relationship with the country’s armed forces. He was forced from office in 1999 by a military coup led by Pervez Musharraf, the then-army chief.
Since his election victory 16 months ago, Mr Sharif’s relationship with the army establishment has not been improved by his decision to allow the prosecution of Mr Musharraf – charged with treason – to proceed.