Two die in cartoons protest as Pakistani violence worsens

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Two people were killed and dozens injured in Pakistan in the worst violence yet triggered by demonstrations against the cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed.

There were clashes in three cities, with the worst unrest in Lahore, in the north-east, where thousands of protesters burned cars and ransacked Western fastfood chains. The Norwegian mobile phone company Telenor, whose headquarters in the Pakistani capital has drawn peaceful demonstrations, was also attacked while stones were thrown at a Holiday Inn and several Western-owned petrol stations.

Police used tear gas to disperse the crowds but security guards at a bank fired real bullets killing two men.

In Islamabad, Western embassies were the targets of protesting students who scaled the perimeter of the capital's maximum security diplomatic enclave chanting "Expel European ambassadors" and, despite the fact that the Danish embassy is not in that enclave, "Death to Denmark". The windows of cars and of a branch of the British bank Standard Chartered were smashed.

Several thousands meanwhile demonstrated peacefully if noisily, outside Parliament.In Peshawar, near the Afghan border, there were clashes between protesters and police for a second consecutive day.

Reaction to the cartoon controversy has until now been muted in Pakistan, the world's second most populous Muslim nation after Indonesia. But yesterday's demonstrations, of a kind rarely seen since President Pervez Musharraf took power in 1999, came in an atmosphere of growing anger. Religious groups, including several banned by General Musharraf in his drive to quell extremism, are suspected of being behind some of the planning, but the sense of outrage at what is being depicted as an orchestrated Western assault on Muslim sensibilities, appears to cut across Pakistani society.

The President warned earlier this week that the issue had united moderate and radical Muslims.

He has pursued a strategic alliance with the US since 2001, but has good reason to be worried by the political fallout if anger gets out of hand. There are fears that a rolling campaign of protest over the cartoons could, combined with a rising tide of opposition over American conduct in the "war on terror", destabilise the regime. One member of the government admitted yesterday: "It is acquiring a momentum of its own."

Major General Shaukat Sultan Khan, the President's spokesman, said the "blasphemous sketches" could be "detrimental to world peace ... Moderate or non-practising Muslims are as one on this. It is like shoving pork down our throat."

Another senior army figure said: "The West should be supporting Musharraf for all he has done in closing down extremists and supporting the war on terror. At home he cannot be seen to be associated with a set of values that can treat Islam in this way."