Islamabad: Deadly clashes flared on Friday as tens of thousands took to the streets across Pakistan, throwing stones at police who fought back with gunshots and tear gas, at rallies denouncing a US-made film that has fanned global Muslim anger.
Clashes broke out in the country’s five largest cities, killing 21 people and wounding more than 195 others, defying government calls for peaceful protests on what was declared a national holiday in honour of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH).
Witnesses estimated that nationwide rallies mobilised more than 100,000, heavily populated by members of religious and political parties and supporters of banned terror groups, although the numbers were still small in a country of 180 million.
Arsonists and looters attacked five cinemas, three banks branches, foreign food outlets, shops and restaurants in Karachi.
Two picture houses were also torched and ransacked in the conservative northwestern city of Peshawar, which runs into tribal belt strongholds of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
In Karachi, a policeman died after being shot by unknown people when officers used tear gas to disperse a crowd near the US consulate, and two people were killed in Peshawar, including the driver for a TV channel which blamed police for his death.
Pakistan deployed police and paramilitary troops, and appeared able to hold off protesters from breaching a series of barricades that sealed off access to Western embassies.
Western missions shut in Pakistan, as across the Islamic world, fearing further escalation of a 10-day violent backlash over the low-budget film Innocence of Muslims” that has spread to 20 countries and left more than 30 people dead.
France, where a magazine this week published a series of cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed, has shut embassies, consulates, cultural centres and schools in 20 Muslim countries, fearing the backlash will spread from US targets.
In Islamabad gunshots were fired outside the five-star Serena Hotel and police baton-charged protesters. The crowd of around 8,000 was held back by barricades protecting the heavily-guarded diplomatic enclave, an AFP reporter said.
Officers fired tear gas and members of the crowd threw stones, shouting “Americans are dogs” and “Friends of America are traitors”, while setting fire to an effigy of a nameless American.
Doctor Tanveer Akhtar of Islamabad’s Services Hospital said 15 people were brought in with largely minor injuries after prayers, at which clerics called for peaceful rallies.
In Rawalpindi, the headquarters of Pakistan’s powerful military, demonstrators pelted cars and police with stones and burnt down a booth at a toll plaza and a police checkpoint, said witnesses and officials.
An AFP reporter said police fired tear gas and live rounds into the air in a bid to disperse stone-throwers and protesters, adding that protesters later walked peacefully into Islamabad.
“I would prefer to die to safeguard the honour of my beloved Prophet,” 16-year-old protester Sami Ullah told AFP.
Tear gas was also used in Lahore, Pakistan’s second city, where the crowd numbered 5,000.
The government had declared Friday a “day of love for the Prophet (PBUH)”, but for hours shut down mobile telephone networks in an apparent bid to prevent extremists from exploiting the protests to carry out bomb attacks.
“It is our collective responsibility to protest peacefully without causing harm or damage to life or property,” said Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf as shops, markets and petrol stations shut en masse in an unprecedented closure.
Washington has warned citizens not to travel to Pakistan and spent $70,000 to air TV adverts in the country disassociating the US government from the film.
There were demonstrations across Asia on Friday in Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan and Bangladesh, where about 10,000 took to the streets of Dhaka to condemn the film and the French cartoons.
In Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, dozens torched an American flag outside the US consulate in Medan. In the city of Surabaya, protesters chanted “Crush America, crush France” outside the French consulate.
In the Arab world, authorities were also braced for demonstrations, with an Islamist militia in Libya’s second city Benghazi calling for protests and Muslims protesting in Lebanon.
US interests bore the brunt of protests against the film, which depicts Mohammed as a thuggish sexual deviant.
After French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo printed cartoons caricaturing the founder of Islam, the government said it would deny all requests to protest against the film and news of the cartoons appeared slow to filter to the Islamic world.
The magazine’s editor, Stephane Charbonnier, mocked those angered by the cartoons as “ridiculous clowns” and accused the French government of pandering to them by criticising the magazine for being provocative.
The United States is still investigating a deadly attack on its consulate in Benghazi on September 11 that left four Americans dead, including the ambassador.
The White House says the FBI suspect’s Al-Qaeda may have been linked to the attack, but it remains unclear whether it was a pre-planned assault or whether it sprang out of a protest against the film.