Pakistani soldiers and paramilitary forces yesterday secured the headquarters of the state television channel PTV in Islamabad after a crowd of antigovernment 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 Muhammad ir ul-Qadri, a Sufi cleric, have been on the streets for weeks trying to bring down the government of Pakistani 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 killed.
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.
Clashes broke out early yesterday 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 said 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, but it has not directly intervened, apart from meeting the protagonists and calling on them to show restraint.
Pakistani army chief General Raheel Sharif met the prime minister yesterday, but it was unclear what they discussed.
Pakistani Defense Minister Khawaja Asif said the government was preparing to launch a selective crackdown against protesters, possibly later yesterday, 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 the middle of last month, paralyzing life in the center of the capital and creating massive traffic jams. The protest site, where many sleep rough, is littered with rubbish and reeks of human waste.
Some ruling party officials have accused elements within the military of orchestrating the protests to weaken the government.
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.
Yesterday morning, despite heavy rain, crowds of protesters fought running battles with retreating police after breaking the main gate into the Pakistan Secretariat area that houses government ministries as well as Nawaz Sharif’s official residence.