Eight dead as police, religious party workers clash in Pakistan

Eight people were killed Tuesday when Pakistani riot police armed with assault rifles clashed with followers of a prominent preacher and anti-government critic in the eastern city of Lahore.

Islamabad: Eight people were killed Tuesday when Pakistani riot police armed with assault rifles clashed with followers of a prominent preacher and anti-government critic in the eastern city of Lahore.

The clash, a rare act of political violence in Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif`s home city, involved supporters of cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri who lives in Canada but is due to come to Pakistan on June 23.

He hopes to lead a "peaceful revolution" against the country`s parliamentary democracy which he considers corrupt.

The religiously moderate cleric has a large following in Pakistan. But some analysts believe he is also supported by the country`s powerful military establishment to keep civilian authorities in check.

The violence came as Pakistan`s military is engaged in a major offensive against Taliban militants in the restive northwest, and could put political pressure on Sharif`s government at a delicate moment.

Shahbaz Sharif, who is Nawaz`s brother and also chief minister of the Punjab province of which Lahore is the capital, said eight people were killed and 97 others including 28 policemen were wounded.

He demanded a probe into the violence and offered to resign if he was found culpable.

"I request the Lahore High Court chief justice to immediately constitute a judicial commission to start a speedy probe into the incident in which eight innocent lives were lost," he told reporters.

"I am deeply saddened over the killings and I offer my sympathies to Tahir-ul-Qadri and the bereaved families," he continued. 

"If I am held responsible, I will immediately resign because I cannot even imagine using force against anyone and my past five years and previous tenures reflect that."

Police said the clashes began when they went to remove what they called illegal security barricades from the office of Qadri`s Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), meaning "Pakistan People`s Movement", in the city`s Model Town suburb on Monday night.

"When police arrived to remove illegal encroachments, party workers started pelting stones and threw petrol bombs from the roof," the city police chief Chaudhry Shafiq told AFP.

Shafiq said the deaths resulted from "bullets fired by workers, not police".

An AFP photographer at the scene saw police fire tear gas and charge protesters with canes, bloodying many including old men.

Shahid Mursaleen, a spokesman for the party, accused Prime Minister Sharif of having a direct hand in the killings.

"These killings have been made on the orders of Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif. We will register police cases against Nawaz Sharif, Shahbaz Sharif and their team," he said.

"We are a peaceful party but if such brutal acts by the government continue, our workers will come on roads and then they will get out of Doctor Qadri`s control," he added.

The killings also sparked protests by PAT supporters in the central city of Multan, where they burnt tyres at the city`s main Ali Chowk intersection.

In Karachi the Muttahida Qaumi Movement party which controls the city called for a nationwide day of mourning.

The PAT did not take part in last year`s elections which saw Sharif sweep to power, criticising the current system of parliamentary democracy for what it called corruption and a lack of legitimacy.

Qadri led a rally of 100,000 people to the capital ahead of the polls, where he gave the government an ultimatum to initiate reforms or face the prospect of prolonged protest.

Commentators suggested PAT`s founder and leader Qadri was working with the powerful military establishment to undermine civilian rule.

He is viewed as a religious moderate and has authored numerous books as well as a fatwa denouncing suicide bombs.

A Canadian citizen, he is something of a favourite on the international lecture circuit and has been a guest at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

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