ISLAMABAD (AFP) ― Police fired tear gas at supporters of a Canada-based cleric at Islamabad airport on Monday as he returned to Pakistan to lead what he has called a “revolution” against the elected government.
Tahir-ul-Qadri, who drew tens of thousands of supporters to a sit-in protest in Islamabad in January last year, arrived at a separate airport a week after nine people were killed when his followers clashed with police in the eastern city of Lahore.
His return could add to the pressure on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government at a sensitive time, when the military is waging a major offensive against Taliban militants in the restive northwest.
Qadri’s flight was diverted to Lahore instead of Islamabad where it had been scheduled to land, but the cleric was refusing to get off.
“My case is very simple. I want Pakistan army to provide me the security. I will be willing to go anywhere if army provides me security,” Qadri told Express TV news by phone.
A spokesman for Pakistan’s Civil Aviation Authority said the flight had been diverted “to ensure the safety of the passengers and aircraft.”
Qadri, a religiously moderate cleric who served as a lawmaker under military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has a substantial following in Pakistan.
But some analysts believe he is also supported by the powerful military establishment to keep civilian authorities in check.
He has long urged a “revolution” to overthrow what he calls Pakistan’s undemocratic political system, and repeated the call before leaving Britain for Pakistan on Sunday.
Security was tight in Islamabad before his expected arrival, 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 airport overnight, chanting “Long live Tahir-ul-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.
Television footage showed Qadri’s followers armed with sticks and bricks clashing with baton-wielding police.
Qadri had led a sit-in protest lasting over four days while the Pakistan People’s Party was in power, four months before it lost the May 2013 general election to Sharif’s party.
Qadri had demanded the early dissolution of the government and 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.