ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistans officially declared Day of Love for the Prophet Muhammad devolved into deadly violence in major cities Friday as tens of thousands of Pakistanis angrily demonstrated against an Islam-mocking YouTube video, although calm generally prevailed in other predominantly Muslim countries.
At least 20 people died and more than 150 were injured in the Pakistani protests, authorities said – the highest one-day death toll since protests began over the video Sept. 11 and spread to some 20 nations.
The governments announced effort to tamp down anger by providing a national holiday for peaceful protest clearly backfired, offering instead what seemed like an official sanction to violence.
Critics called the holiday a pandering attempt to please hard-line Islamist parties, whose influence has been on the rise here in recent years.
This was a terrible idea, said Mehreen Zahra-Malik, a columnist with the News, a national English-language daily. It was time to calm people down and not give a stamp of approval to protesters, many of whom would just use it as an excuse for violence. There was clearly going to be violence.
Another commentator, Marvi Sirmed, said on Twitter: It is sad, so very sad that we could never make a government realize that they dont have to kneel before mullah, a reference to Muslim clerics.
Despite repeated U.S. disavowals of the privately made video and denunciations of its content, many Pakistanis remained unconvinced, seeing it as an intentional calumny against the prophet Muhammad.
Most of the fatalities and destruction came in the southern port city of Karachi, where Saghir Ahmed, health minister for Sindh province, said 14 people died, including two policemen shot by rioters. At least 80 people were wounded, Roshan Ali Shaikh, the citys police commissioner, said.
In the northwest city of Peshawar, rescue workers and other officials said six people were killed, including a policeman and member of a television crew, in rampages that also left about 60 people wounded. Television journalists on the scene said police opened fire with live rounds as mobs torched two movie houses.
Demonstrators also battled security forces for the second day in the usually calm capital, Islamabad, in the north. They blocked major highways there and in neighboring Rawalpindi, setting a tollbooth and vehicles on fire.
Fourteen police officers were injured in the chaos, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said. The Pakistani army, however, was mobilized and successfully protected the U.S. Embassy, presidential residence and parliament building.
The rioters in all four cities targeted U.S. diplomatic facilities but failed to reach them, subdued by Pakistani police and paramilitary forces, who had set up barricades to deter demonstrators.