Ashura Protest Turns Violent in Pakistan

A curfew has been imposed in the Pakistani cities of Rawalpindi and Multan after violent clashes between Shiite and Sunnis during an Ashura procession on Friday, leaving at least 10 dead and 44 injured.

ashura-pakistan-protestISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Six of the injured are said to be in critical condition.

Mobile services were also suspended in Rawalpindi, located just 9 miles outside of the capital Islamabad, following tension in the region hit by a riot.

None of the officials of the state-owned Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) or other private cellular operators were willing to comment on the suspension of the services.

However, police sources said the services would stay suspended until Sunday afternoon while another official of the Rawalpindi District said that unless the situation in the region stabilized, the cellular suspension and curfew would remain.

The bloodshed Friday’s protest quickly escalated into clashes involving students from a Sunni seminary and rival Shiite mourners after an Ashura procession coincided with a sermon at a nearby mosque. Afzal Hussain, a police officer from Rawalpindi, said that the Shiite mourners beat to death three men from a seminary in Rawalpindi for insulting them, which triggered the violent Sunni-Shiite clashes.

Waseem Ahmed, an official of the police control room, said that the violent situation was brought under control after a series of negotiations with the protestors. Only after military forces arrived did protestors disperse, and the atmosphere remains tense with most shops, restaurants and schools closed.

The media was also caught in the turmoil with two private television reporters and cameramen sustaining injuries in Raja Bazar of the Rawalpindi district. Citing a senior official from Pakistan’s emergency response unit known as Rescue 1122, the media said that at least 10 people were killed, with 44 wounded and 100 shops torched.

Police sources confirmed that many shops from Raja Bazar were set on fire and said that some unidentified persons torched a cloth market and prevented fire brigade vehicles from helping the victims. Police sources said that the army took control of Raja Bazar and Madina where clashes erupted between the two groups.

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Some unidentified persons also pelted stones at police.

According to police sources, gunshots were also heard during the clashes. Angry mobs seized 10 rifles from police and shots were fired from these rifles.

Hospital officials said that those wounded in Friday’s violence sustained multiple injuries. “So far we can confirm the death of eight people from the violence. We received a total of 44 injured people and 13 of them had gunshot wounds,” said Qasim Khan, a doctor at Rawalpindi’s district hospital.

Another doctor who wished to remain unnamed added, “At the city hospital, bodies arrived mangled by fire.” He added that “there have been more than 40 injuries, 13 of which from bullet wounds.”

A large numbers of troops were deployed in the city today and soldiers patrolled the streets while gunship helicopters flew sorties over the city, as well as pickup trucks carrying army soldiers.

On Saturday, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif phoned Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif requesting an update on the situation in Rawalpindi. A statement from the Prime Minister’s House said the chief minister briefed the premier at length on the measures taken by the government to defuse the tension.

The Punjab government has also set up a five-member committee to probe the carnage. Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah will head the committee along with the chief secretary, Rawalpindi commissioner, interior secretary and the Punjab Inspector General of Police (IGP).

Security in the federal capital has been put on high alert while mobile service has been suspended besides deployment of more contingents of police at sensitive places and important buildings.

Islamabad Police Inspector General Sikandar Hayat has directed senior officials to ensure elaborate security arrangements at all sensitive locations due to the current law and order situation in Muharram, according to a press release issued on Saturday.

Kiyya Qadir Baloch is a freelance Baloch journalist associated with the Daily Times based in Islamabad. He reports on foreign affairs, Baloch insurgency, militancy and sectarian violence in Balochistan. Read other articles by Kiyya.