LAHORE: The government on Monday refused to allow the flight carrying Pakistan Awami Tehreek chief Tahirul Qadri landing at the Islamabad airport and instead diverted it to Lahore in the “supreme national interest”.
However, the firebrand Canada-based cleric refused to disembark from the plane at the Lahore airport. His supporters, armed with sticks and bricks, clashed with baton-wielding police at Islamabad airport, where Qadri had been due to arrive on an Emirates flight. A spokesman for Islamabad police said more than 70 officers were wounded, with several suffering broken bones and head injuries. The plane was diverted to Lahore “to ensure the safety of the passengers and aircraft”, according to a civil aviation official. But for several hours Qadri refused to get off.
The 63-year-old demanded protection from the military before agreeing to disembark. He finally left the aircraft accompanied by Punjab Governor Mohammad Sarwar and opposition politician Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi. Qadri said he held the prime minister and his brother Shahbaz Sharif, Punjab chief minister, responsible for the killing of his party workers last week, comparing the pair to “Hitler and Mussolini”.
“I will revenge inshallah (God willing). I will revenge for the labourers, helpless, poor and martyrs,” he said at the Jinnah Hospital as he visited those wounded in last week’s clashes. Addressing workers at his residence later, Qadri said he would “announce a date for revolution” shortly. “I will give a sudden call,” he said. “The rulers will try to run away, but I won’t let the looters run away.” Qadri had served as a lawmaker under military ruler Pervez Musharraf. Some analysts believe he is also supported by the powerful military establishment to try to keep civilian authorities in check.
Security was tight in Islamabad before his expected arrival there, with the government deploying armed personnel at all entry and exit points of the capital and blocking roads to the airport with shipping containers. But Qadri’s supporters, including a large number of women, managed to breach police cordons to arrive at Islamabad’s airport overnight, chanting “Long live Tahirul Qadri” and “Revolution, revolution, Islamic revolution”. Surveillance helicopters flew overhead as police fired tear gas at the crowd occupying the area outside the airport, an AFP reporter said.
As the plane carrying Qadri approached the Benazir Bhutto International Airport, violence broke out on the ground as police fired tear gas at 2,000 of his supporters in chaotic scenes rarely seen in the orderly capital. The authorities, fearing an escalation of unrest, diverted the commercial flight to Lahore. “We want no corruption, we want no terrorism in our country,” Qadri told Reuters aboard the plane. “We want total transparency of institutions.”
Even after the aircraft landed in Lahore, Qadri and his supporters refused to leave the plane for hours, demanding it fly back to Islamabad or for the army to send a representative to protect him. He eventually disembarked and was escorted to his residence in Lahore, his main base in the country. Outside Lahore airport, about 1,000 supporters held a peaceful rally shouting “Long live Qadri”. Qadri’s spokesman, Shahid Mursaleen, said he wanted to stage an Arab Spring-style revolt and install a government that would enforce reform, tackle terrorism and improve accountability. “He wants to bring a peaceful democratic revolution,” Mursaleen told Reuters. “He wants to topple the whole system.”
Qadri visited the Jinnah Hospital to inquire about the health of those who were injured in clashes with the Punjab Police, along with Punjab governor and PML-Q leader Chaudhry Pervaiz Ellahi. Later he reached the Minhajul Quran Secretariat. PAT workers, who performed the security duties themselves, formed a human chain around his vehicle. A number of women and children stood on both sides of the road to welcome him. The PAT workers showered huge quantities of rose petals on Qadri’s vehicle.
While talking to media from inside the plane the cleric claimed that the government has hired terrorists to kill him and his supporters. “Therefore I only trust Pakistan Army and its official (representative) must come to escort me to my house.” Qadri has returned to Pakistan to form an anti-government alliance with the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML Q) other political and religious parties. He announced his arrival earlier this month. After his announcement, the PML N government in Punjab started an anti-encroachment operation at Minhajul Quran Secretariat in Model Town, which led to a clash, which led to the death of at least 14 people, including two women. More than a 100 people were injured in the clash.
In January last year Qadri drew tens of thousands of people to a sit-in protest in Islamabad. His return comes at a sensitive time for the government, potentially adding to pressure on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The military is in the midst of a major offensive against Taliban militants in the northwest. Qadri had led the sit-in lasting over four days while the previous Pakistan People’s Party government was in power, four months before it lost the May 2013 general election to Nawaz’s party. Qadri had demanded the early dissolution of the PPP government and the implementation of a caretaker setup backed by the military and judiciary. But despite intense media interest, the protest had little long-term impact – Qadri ended his sit-in after talks with ministers and the election went ahead as planned, and he returned to Canada.
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