September 20, 2012 (TSR) – THOUSANDS of Pakistanis attempted to storm Islamabad’s diplomatic enclave, as anger mounted across the Muslim world over perceived Western insults to the Prophet Mohammed.
Similar demonstrations took place in several countries, as the anger that erupted when a US group of Christian extremists released a crudely-made film attacking Mohammed was further stoked by caricatures in a French magazine.
In a foretaste of what might come when tens of millions of Muslims leave their mosques on Friday after weekly prayers, crowds in Nigeria, Iran and Afghanistan chanted: “Death to France. Death to America. Death to Israel.”
In Islamabad, police fired teargas and live rounds as they defended the heavily-guarded diplomatic district, home to Western embassies including the US, British and French missions, against mobs of club-wielding protesters.
Dozens of officers were wounded and a police post burnt to the ground before army troops were eventually called in to disperse the protesters, who had breached a wall of shipping containers designed to hold them back.
Western missions are on high alert as the United States investigates a deadly attack on one of its consulates in Libya, and ahead of Friday’s prayers, which are often a prelude to protest in the Muslim world.
The White House confirmed that FBI investigators suspected that al-Qaida may have been linked to the September 11 attack in the Benghazi compound, which left four US officials dead, including the ambassador to Libya.
It is not yet clear whether the attack by armed militants sprang out of the protest movement against the privately-produced film or whether it was a pre-planned assault by an organised Islamist faction.
But US President Barack Obama’s spokesman called the killings a “terrorist attack” and said officials were probing reports that the militants could have links to al-Qaida or it North African offshoot.
Separately, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that a senior panel would be appointed to review security in the wake of the killings. She was also to brief lawmakers on the investigation into the attack.
US interests bore the brunt of the first wave of protests, after Christian activists released a trailer for an amateurish movie, The Innocence of Muslims, depicting the Prophet Mohammed as a thuggish sexual deviant.
But this week France also found itself in the firing line after the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo printed a batch of cartoons caricaturing the founder of Islam, including two showing him naked.
French authorities banned a demonstration planned for Saturday in front of Paris’s Grand Mosque, and will close diplomatic missions, cultural centres and French schools in around 20 Muslim countries on Friday.
The French interior ministry has said it will deny all requests for permits to protest the film after a demonstration last weekend near the US embassy in Paris turned violent.
Leaders of France’s Muslim community – the largest in western Europe – said an appeal for calm would be read in mosques across the country on Friday but also condemned Charlie Hebdo for publishing “insulting” images.
Charlie Hebdo‘s editor, Stephane Charbonnier, mocked those angered by the cartoons as “ridiculous clowns” and accused the government of pandering to them by criticising the magazine for being provocative.
The US State Department has warned its citizens to avoid travel to Pakistan – which declared Friday a national holiday in honour of the prophet – and Washington has boosted security at its diplomatic missions worldwide.
Earlier in Islamabad, up to 50 people were injured as police clashed with thousands of protesters, some carrying the banners of extremist groups.
Officers fired tear gas and live rounds as the demonstrators, many armed with wooden clubs, tried to reach Islamabad’s heavily-guarded diplomatic enclave, home to most Western embassies, including the US, British and French missions.
The government called in the army to protect the enclave after protesters broke through a barrier of shipping containers set up by police to block a road leading to the area.
There have been dozens of demonstrations around Pakistan over the past week and at least two people have been killed, but this was the first time protests in the capital had turned violent.
An initial demonstration of around 1000 swelled to around 5000 with the arrival of protesters carrying the flags of hardline Islamist groups Jamaat-ud-Dawa, Jamaat-e-Islami and Sipah-e-Sahaba – which is banned by the Pakistan government.
Police fired tear gas and live rounds as the protesters, chanting “We are ready to die to safeguard the Prophet’s honour”, stormed the container barrier.
The firing scattered the crowd, but they returned to pelt officers with stones and breach the cordon, before torching a police post next to the nearby five-star Serena hotel.
The luxury hotel, much used by visiting Westerners, came under attack as a few demonstrators managed to enter the car park and damage vehicles, while others picked up tear gas shells fired by police and threw them into the Serena compound.
Doctor Razia Sultana of the Federal Government Services Hospital said at least 44 police and six civilians were hurt in the clashes, with the majority of injuries caused by stones and tear gas shells.
Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira said the government would protect the diplomatic enclave at all costs and accused political groups of trying to fan violence.
Pakistan has declared Friday a national holiday and “day of love for the prophet” in response to Innocence of Muslims and called for peaceful protests.
“I appeal to the people to remain peaceful tomorrow as any violent protest will harm the country,” Mr Kaira said.
“Indulgence in violence will not convey any positive message abroad.”
Student Asif Mehmood demanded police let protesters through to the US embassy and urged harsh treatment for American pastor Terry Jones, who is notorious for past Koran-burning episodes and is reportedly connected to the film.
“Terry Jones and the filmmaker should be sternly punished for playing with the feelings of Muslims. We will not tolerate this blasphemy,” Mr Mehmood said.
Fellow protester Rehan Ahmad said: “Islam is often ridiculed by America and the West and blasphemy is committed against our prophet in the name of freedom of expression.”
A boisterous crowd of around 4000 staged a rally in the eastern city of Lahore, while demonstrations were also held in several other cities around Punjab province, including Gujranwala, Sialkot and Bahawalpur.
In Quetta, the capital of the troubled southwestern province of Baluchistan, some 2000 students paraded on the main airport road before gathering outside the Quetta Press Club where they burnt US and Israeli flags.
Elsewhere in Baluchistan, around 100 Christians denounced the film in their own protest in the border town of Chaman, where trucks supplying NATO troops cross into Afghanistan.
They carried placards and banners that read “We are with Muslims against blasphemous film” and chanted “Down with America”.
Christians form a small minority in Pakistan’s 180 million population, 97 per cent of whom are Muslim.