At least six people were killed and over 200 injured after police moved in to break "blasphemy" protests.
Pakistan's government has called in the army to help police and paramilitary forces disperse a protest in Islamabad that killed at least six people and injured 200 more on Saturday.
With the situation turning grim in Islamabad and violence spilling into other cities, the government's Interior Ministry issued a statement in the evening saying the army has been deployed to “control the law-and-order situation.”
Around 150 protesters were arrested since the clashes erupted, the authorities said.
The supporters of the cleric, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, have been blocking one of the main roads connecting Islamabad with Rawalpindi for over three weeks.
Earlier in the day, security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets as the demonstrators burned police vehicles around the site of the sit-in.
An Islamabad police spokesman confirmed that a policeman was killed in the fighting after he was struck in the head by a rock, and an AFP journalist saw what appeared to be the body of at least one demonstrator lying on the road in the capital.
TRT World spoke to Pakistani journalist Kamran Yousaf who says the protests are spreading to other parts of the country.
Rizvi, who leads the Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah, is demanding the resignation of Pakistan’s law minister, Zahid Hamid.
Hamid initiated a change to electoral laws that altered the wording of an oath sworn by lawmakers.
Though the amendment was immediately reversed, Rizvi's supporters are still adamant on Hamid's resignation, denouncing the initial change as blasphemy — a highly volatile issue that has repeatedly caused violence in Pakistan.
TRT World's Liz Maddock reports.
There is NO justification for burning public & private property at all. Cars of common people, hotels, shops, businesses are also being burnt by out of control mobs.— Zaid Hamid (@ZaidZamanHamid) November 25, 2017
This Govt has to go now....but those burning Pakistan's property must also be nailed. pic.twitter.com/jYQzNckTtr
Demonstrators claim the oath was softened to enable the participation of Ahmadis, a minority group not considered Muslim by Pakistani law.
Smoke and tear gas filled the air in the ongoing, hours-long bid by some 8,500 police as well as paramilitary Rangers and Frontier Corps forces to clear the demonstrators, which began soon after dawn.
Spillover to other cities
Fresh protests were also springing up in other cities.
Police in Karachi said some 200 protesters were blockading a major road in the southern port, with at least nine injured people - including three with gunshot wounds - brought to hospital, according to doctors.
Markets and shops were closing in the megacity, Pakistan's commercial hub, as alarmed residents stayed inside while clerics called for more demonstrators to come and help protect the dignity of the Prophet Mohammed.
Smaller demonstrations were breaking out in Lahore and other cities, according to local media.
Army chief calls PM
As the clashes intensified, Pakistan's powerful military chief phoned the prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi to urge the situation be handled "peacefully," military spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor said on Twitter.
General Qamar Javed Bajwa called for both sides to avoid violence "as it is not in national interest".
Pakistan's media regulator barred local TV channels from broadcasting live images from the scene, though protesters were still using Facebook Live and other social media.
For the first time in history of Pakistan, PEMRA bans all news channels! Blanket ban on news in Pakistan!— Adeel Raja (@adeelraja) November 25, 2017
Three-week long protest
Authorities have hesitated to act against the sit-in, citing fears of violence as the demonstrators have vowed to die for their cause.
But their weeks of inaction have sparked the wrath of residents as well as Pakistan's judiciary, with the Supreme Court issuing a blistering statement earlier in the week and the Islamabad High Court threatening to hold officials in contempt.
The sit-in had previously cost the life of an eight-year-old child whose ambulance could not reach a hospital in time due to the blocked roads.
Analysts and critics have accused the government of bungling its response to the protest, and allowing a minor issue to grow into a headline-grabbing and potentially dangerous situation.
"Politically driven procrastination has its own costs and this is what the government is paying," analyst Imtiaz Gul said.