Violence and mayhem erupted across Pakistan yesterday as protesters took to the streets over a film made in the United States that they see as insulting the Prophet Mohamed, leaving at least 15 dead.
Leaderless mobs fought police all day in cities across the country, with the worst violence in Peshawar in the north west and in the southern port of Karachi. Protesters burned buildings and trashed shops and vehicles.
The government's gamble of declaring yesterday a national holiday, in an apparent attempt to provide a means for people to vent their anger, seemed to backfire. It only swelled the crowds and their determination, with tens of thousands joining the chaos after Friday prayers.
In the capital, Islamabad, the US embassy was the target for the protesters. In the provincial capitals of Lahore, Karachi and Peshawar, the US consulates were the focus where the police just about managed to keep the crowds at bay. Paramilitary forces were also deployed, while in Islamabad, the army was on standby.
Some reports put the death toll at 20, with 12 killed in Karachi alone, including three police officers, and more than 100 injured. Police used live rounds and rubber bullets in and elsewhere. Areas of the cities turned into war zones, suffocating under a blanket of tear gas. Dozens of police officers were among the wounded as the enraged crowds hit back.
Banned extremist groups, carrying their organisations' flags, joined the demonstrations in many of the cities, including Sipah-e-Sahaba. In Lahore, one rally was addressed by Hafiz Saeed, the leader of internationally proscribed Jamaat-ud-Dawa, who carries a US bounty of $10m (£6m) on his head. Effigies of US president Barack Obama were widely burnt.
Pakistan saw the most violence, but there were protests across the Muslim world. In Iraq, where about 3,000 people, mostly followers of Iranian-backed Shiaa Muslim groups, protested against the film in the southern city of Basra. In Bangladesh, about 10,000 people marched through the streets of the capital, Dhaka. They burned a makeshift coffin draped in an American flag, and an effigy of Obama. In Lebanon, thousands gathered in the Bekaa valley for the latest in a series of protest rallies organised by Hezbollah.
In Islamabad, there was a running war between police and the crowd for seven hours in front of the entrance to the city's heavily fortified diplomatic area, which houses the American embassy. "We want America to know that we are ready to die for Islam," said one marcher, 24-year-old clerk Muhammad Adil, recovering from tear gas. "Our religion is not the sort that you can make fun of. We will not tolerate it."
The crowd seemed sure that the US government was behind the amateurish internet film, The Innocence of Muslims, or they believed that Washington could stop it anyway. "We just want the guilty person tried and hanged," said Omar Hyat, a 38-year-old businessman. "All this is happening by design. It is a conspiracy. They are testing how far they can push Muslims."
In Peshawar, a TV news worker was shot dead, seemingly by police. The city's Firdous cinema was set ablaze as protesters rampaged towards the US consulate. In Karachi, four cinemas were burnt as well as banks, restaurants and shops. Often the buildings were looted before being set on fire.
Pakistan's information minister, Qamar Zaman Kaira, said: "Our enemies must be very happy. We are only hurting ourselves. Only damaging our own country. What did those killed today die for?"
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies