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Police in Pakistan yesterday shot dead four protesters and injured three more as they stormed a crowd blocking a railway line during the most violent nationwide demonstrations against the war in Afghanistan witnessed for over a month.
More than 1,000 people gathered on the line outside the Shahdan Lund railway station in the Punjab, blocked a train and pelted stones at the security forces. Police fired teargas at the crowd, charged with wooden lathi sticks and opened fire.
"The people dispersed but there is still tension in the area. People are very angry," said Khalil-ur Rehman Lund, a doctor at the nearby rural health centre.
Islamic parties had called for a general strike across the country yesterday to mark their opposition to the war but they appear to have failed to galvanise the majority of the population. Several thousand people poured on to the streets when the US first said it planned to strike against the Taliban regime. Since then the demonstrations have quickly fallen in size as the government has threatened more serious crackdowns.
"Nobody will be allowed to disrupt law and order," said Moinuddin Haider, Pakistan's interior minister and a retired general. "We will be very tough with the law violators."
In an attempt to curb the protests, yesterday was declared a national holiday, ostensibly to mark the birthday of Pakistan's great nationalist poet Allama Iqbal. As a result, most roads were deserted and shops closed as police and soldiers patrolled big cities in armoured personnel carriers.
Pakistan's military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, felt confident enough about his own position to fly to London and New York for the UN general assembly, where he will meet George Bush.
"We want Pervez Musharraf to tell Bush that he must stop the bombing, the killing of civilians," said Aslam Farooqi, the head of the militant Islamist group Sipah-e-Sahabah.
Two senior Islamic clerics were arrested this week in another effort to head off the protests. One of the men, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, who heads Pakistan's largest Islamic party, was also charged with sedition because he called for the overthrow of Gen Musharraf. He could face life in jail.
In Sibi, near Quetta in the deserts of western Pakistan, police arrested 100 protesters who had blocked the road. Until now Quetta, a stronghold of the hardline Jamiat Ulemae Islami party, which has strong Taliban links, has been the scene of the worst violence.
At least 500 members of the JUI party and other Islamist groups were arrested in the days before the strike.
In Karachi and Peshawar police fired teargas and often punched protesters. A small crowd marched through the old city in Peshawar chanting "Taliban, Taliban" and ordering shopkeepers to close.
Pakistan's Islamist parties have threatened to unseat Gen Musharraf and called again for his resignation yesterday.
"After today's successful strike Musharraf has no right to remain in power after and he should step down," Sami-ul Haq, a leading cleric who organised the protest, told a crowd in Peshawar. "His policies are against the interests of Pakistan. The United States has occupied Pakistan."
Yet hardliners like Mr Haq, who runs a mosque school near Peshawar that trained many senior Taliban leaders, still only managed to mobilise fellow Islamists.
For now the military regime appears firmly in control, although concern is growing across even liberal sections of the population about the slow pace of the Afghan conflict.
The Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia was formed in 1993 to combat rising religious intolerance in South Asia and to campaign for peace and justice in the region. We are committed to working towards a just, non-violent resolution of the crisis we are currently living through. If you are interested in joining us in this work, please call 617-983-3934 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
20 May 2006
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