Pakistan police tear-gas cartoon protesters

Police used tear gas and water cannon on Tuesday to disperse hundreds of students who stormed the diplomatic enclave in Pakistan’s capital in protest against cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.

Around 600 demonstrators, most of them wearing school uniforms, chanted “Death to Denmark, Death to America” as they pushed past security guards and marched towards the Indian and British high commissions.

They threw stones at the Indian mission and smashed windows and hoardings outside a branch of Standard Chartered bank before police expelled them from the barricaded and fenced-off area, witnesses said.

The mob — which peeled off from a crowd of around 3 000 student protesters from several colleges who skipped classes and paraded through Islamabad — also gathered outside the French embassy.

Fire trucks with water cannon mounted on their roofs also hosed down the protesters amid clouds of tear gas, while police wielding batons could be seen dragging some young people away.

“Police fired tear gas shells and the protesters retreated. The situation is under control,” said police officer Mohammad Sohail.

Staff at nearby embassies were advised to stay inside until the demonstration ended.

“A small group of demonstrators got inside the diplomatic enclave but they were soon dispersed. At no stage was there any danger to our staff or property,” a British High Commission spokesperson said.

Before entering the enclave the protesters ripped down and trampled on giant portraits of President Pervez Musharraf and visiting Bangaldeshi Prime Minister Khaleda Zia.

Shortly afterwards over 200 Pakistani legislators marched from Parliament to the diplomatic enclave, where they held a five-minute silent protest.

Opposition MP Hafiz Hussain Ahmed said that if the countries where the cartoons have been published failed to take action “then the protests may spin out of control”.

The allegedly blasphemous cartoons have caused outrage throughout the Muslim world since they were first published in Danish daily Jyllands-Posten last September and then in other mainly Western newspapers.

Relatively small scale protests against the cartoons have been held almost daily in Pakistan, but the demonstrations have turned more angry in the past few days.

In the conservative northwestern city of Peshawar, around 1 500 people gathered at several separate rallies for a second day of protests against the caricatures.

Police tear gassed and baton-charged one demonstration of around 200 college and university students who set up burning tyres to block the main road out of the city.

The protesters also torched an effigy of United States President George Bush. Police whisked away dozens of students in vans.

On Monday 4 000 protesters went on the rampage in Peshawar, smashing traffic lights and hoardings advertising Norwegian telecom giant Telenor.

Witnesses said Peshawar shopkeepers were frantically removing Telenor advertising on Tuesday for fear of further attacks.

Meanwhile, traders in Islamabad and the eastern city of Lahore went on strike on Tuesday following a call by Islamic parties, shutting down almost all shopping centres, bazaars and fruit and vegetable markets.

Around 400 shopkeepers in Islamabad marched towards the Parliament building while protesters in Lahore held fresh demonstrations.

Pakistan’s hardline Islamic parties have called for a nationwide strike over the issue on March 3.

‘New September 11’

Meanwhile, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak on Tuesday discussed mechanisms to protect religious symbols and beliefs.

On the second leg of a tour of the Middle East, Solana voiced his “profound desire to recuperate relations between the EU and the Muslim world”.

Solana told reporters he had discussed with Mubarak means of implementing the principles of a joint statement issued a week ago by the European Union, United Nations and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference.

“We believe freedom of the press entails responsibility and discretion and should respect the beliefs and tenets of all religions,” said the statement.

Solana said he had discussed means to ensure “religious symbols can be protected.” Such steps could materialise through various mechanisms, “and maybe inside the new human rights commission created in the UN”, he said.

He was due to hold talks with Sheikh Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi of al-Azhar University, the highest seat of learning in Sunni Islam, as well as Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit and Arab League Secretary General Amr Mussa.

Solana kicked off his tour of the region on Monday with a visit to Saudi Arabia, where he expressed fears that “people in the Muslim world are starting to feel this is a new September 11 against them”.

Some of the caricatures portray Mohammed as a terrorist and have since been reprinted in scores of other European papers, sparking an unprecedented outcry in Muslim countries.

Tens of thousands of Muslims across the world have held demonstrations to protest against the cartoons, calling for a boycott of Danish products and demanding their countries sever ties with Denmark. – AFP

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