A policeman raises his stick as he calls for fellow
policemen to disperse anti-government protesters. Photo by
Pakistani soldiers and paramilitary forces have secured
the state television headquarters in Islamabad after a crowd of
anti-government protesters stormed the building and took the
channel off the air.
Protesters led by opposition leaders Imran Khan, a hero
cricket player turned politician, and firebrand Muslim cleric
Tahir ul-Qadri have been on the streets for weeks trying to
bring down the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Protests descended into deadly chaos over the weekend, with
demonstrators clashing with police in a central area near
many government buildings and embassies. Three people were
Sharif, who was toppled by the army in a 1999 coup but staged
a comeback with a big election win in May last year, has
refused to quit while protest leaders have rejected his
offers of talks, creating a dangerous deadlock.
Clashes broke out early on Monday and continued sporadically
throughout the day. The state PTV channel and its
English-language PTV World service were taken off the air
after protesters stormed its headquarters.
A PTV source told Reuters the protesters had occupied the
main control room and smashed some equipment. Uniformed
members of a paramilitary force and soldiers later secured
the building and the station later came back on the air.
In the nuclear-armed nation where power has often changed
hands through military coups rather than elections, the army
is bound to play a key role in how the conflict unfolds.
It has not directly intervened, apart from meeting the
protagonists and calling on them to show restraint.
Army chief General Raheel Sharif met Prime Minister Sharif on
Monday, but it was unclear what they discussed.
WRIT OF THE STATE
Defence Minister Khawaja Asif told Reuters the government was
preparing to launch a selective crackdown against protesters,
possibly later on Monday, and warned demonstrators against
storming government buildings.
"The writ of the state must be enforced. We hope to make a
decisive move sometimes later today, not in the evening but
even before that," he said. "I personally feel that the next
few hours will determine the course of coming events."
Protesters have camped out in Islamabad since mid-August,
paralysing life in the centre of the capital and creating
massive traffic jams. The protest site, where many sleep
rough, is littered with rubbish and reeks of human waste.
How the crisis ends will be ultimately decided by the army.
If the protests get out of hand, the military could step in
decisively, imposing a curfew or even martial law.
There is also a question mark over how much protest leaders
are capable of controlling their own people, many of them
frustrated after weeks of hardship and no solution in sight.
Alternatively, the army could side with the protesters and
put pressure on Sharif to resign, in which case an interim
government would have be put in place and early parliamentary
elections held to elect a new government.
However, few observers believe the army is bent on seizing
power again. A weakened Sharif would allow the army to remain
firmly in charge of key issues such as relations with India
and Afghanistan while allowing the civilian government to
deal with day-to-day economic problems in which it has little
The United States, already concerned about regional stability
at a time when most of its troops are leaving neighbouring
Afghanistan, called for restraint by all sides, saying
protesters had a right to demonstrate peacefully.
"Violence and destruction of private property and government
buildings are not acceptable means of resolving political
differences, however, and we strongly oppose any efforts to
impose extra-constitutional change to the political system,"
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Some ruling party officials have accused elements within the
military of orchestrating the protests to weaken the
Khan and Qadri have instructed their supporters to avoid any
confrontation with the armed forces and strictly follow their
orders. As soldiers entered the PTV building, many protesters
smiled and shook hands with them.
The military insists it does not meddle in politics but it
was known to be frustrated with the government, in particular
over the treason trial of former military chief and
ex-President Pervez Musharraf, who deposed Sharif in 1999.
There has also been disagreement on how to handle Islamist
militants, and on relations with old rival India.
On Monday morning, despite heavy rain, crowds of protesters
fought running battles with retreating police after breaking
the main gate into the Pakistan Secretariat area which houses
government ministries as well as Sharif's official residence.
After a brief lull during the day, protesters once again
charged towards police lines in the so-called Red zone - home
to the prime minister's house, parliament and foreign
embassies - as they sought to reach the prime minister's
Sharif, who was prime minister twice in the 1990s, swept to
office last year in Pakistan's first democratic transition of
power. He is due to address both houses of parliament on
Tuesday in an apparent effort to show that he is firmly in
Seeking to appear decisive as the conflict unfolded, the
government has also registered treason cases against Khan and
Qadri following the weekend clashes, the defence minister
But Sharif looks increasingly cornered, and even if he
survives the crisis he is likely to remain significantly
weakened for the rest of his tenure.
In a speech laced with populist slogans, Khan said he would
not call off the protests until Sharif resigns. "Pakistan's
Hosni Mubarak, who buys people with his money, was once
thought of as indispensable, but today his legs are shaking,"
he said, likening Sharif to the ousted Egyptian leader.