ISLAMABAD/PESHAWAR: Several thousand people rallied Wednesday in northwestern Pakistan, denouncing the killing of 18 villagers in an overnight raid they blamed on security forces and displaying the victims’ bodies in the provincial capital in a sign of protest.
The outcry came as thousands of supporters of a fiery Muslim preacher continued their anti-government protest in the capital, Islamabad, for a third day, paralyzing key areas of the city.
The deaths of the villagers occurred late Tuesday in an area known as Khyber Agency. It’s part of the tribal region where the Pakistani military has been waging a campaign against Islamic militants. Human rights groups and residents claim the operations are often laced with abuse and cause civilian casualties.
About 3,000 people gathered Wednesday outside the house of the governor of northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in Peshawar. They said gunmen wearing military uniforms stormed homes in their area and shot the villagers dead.
The protesters shouted anti-military slogans and called on the military to end its operations in the Bara area where the shooting occurred. One sign written in Urdu read: “We are also Pakistanis. Don’t kill us.”
Shabir Ahmad, a soldier from the paramilitary Frontier Constabulary, said his four brothers and father were present at their home when uniformed gunmen stormed his house, opened fire and killed them.
“I want to know who killed my brothers and father and why,” he said.
An official with the Frontier Constabulary, which operates in the area, said the villagers had been killed by militants. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The bodies of the villagers killed in the Peshawar raid were displayed wrapped in blankets and laid out on the street outside the governor’s house.
The relatives of dozens of Shiites killed in a bomb attack last week in the southwestern city of Quetta also had protested by displaying the bodies of the dead in the street. They refused to bury them for four days until the government met their demand to dissolve the government of Baluchistan province.
Meanwhile, the preacher leading the protest in Islamabad, Mohammad Tahirul Qadri, addressed his supporters in a marathon four-hour speech Wednesday. He again called for the removal of the government and pilloried the country’s politicians as corrupt thieves. He said they were more interested in lining their pockets than dealing with pressing problems like severe energy and gas shortages.
“The country is like a goat for them that they are sharing and eating,” said Qadri, sitting in a bulletproof container as he faced thousands of protesters packed into the main avenue running through Islamabad.
The crowd was a bit smaller than the previous two days but still contained at least 20,000 people, said an Islamabad police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Pakistan’s political opposition echoed Qadri’s calls Wednesday, demanding an immediate timetable for polls, but dealt a blow to the massive anti-government protest by refusing to endorse their four-day demonstration.
Pakistan’s opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, announced after consultations with main opposition parties that they would not be joining Qadri in a move that appeared to isolate the populist Canadian-Pakistani preacher.
“This meeting demands from the government that an election schedule and caretaker setup should be announced without any delay and dates for these events specified forthwith,” Sharif, who was unseated as prime minister by a military coup in 1999, announced at a news conference.
The preacher asked his supporters to pledge Wednesday that they would continue their protest until the dissolution of the government and the implementation of electoral reforms that he claims will make the system more democratic. He said the same corrupt politicians would win elections without reform.
The government is strongly opposed to Qadri’s rally, and political leaders have called the preacher’s demands unconstitutional.
Speaking at a news conference Wednesday near the federal parliament, Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira said general elections would take place as scheduled some time between May 5 and 15, and suggested action would be taken if the protests dragge on.
“There is nothing wrong with raising your concerns and protesting. But if you try to hold the capital hostage and disrupt the lives of its people, the law will take its course.”