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Pakistani police fought running battles with stone-throwing Islamist activists on Saturday as they tried to clear a sit-in by religious hard-liners who have blocked the main routes into Islamabad for more than two weeks. Dozens of people were injured, including many police, according to reports from hospitals. Protesters said four of their activists had been killed, although police said there have been no deaths. By nightfall new demonstrators had joined the camp in Faizabad, just outside Islamabad, in a stand-off with police, as protests spread to other main cities with activists brandishing sticks and attacking cars in some areas.
Private TV stations were ordered off the air, with only state-run television broadcasting.Activists from Tehreek-e-Labaik, a new hard-line Islamist political party, have blockaded the main road into the capital for two weeks, accusing the law minister of blasphemy against Islam and demanding his dismissal and arrest. “We are in our thousands. We will not leave. We will fight until end,” Tehreek-e-Labaik party spokesman Ejaz Ashrafi told Reuters by telephone from the scene. Tehreek-e-Labaik is one of two new ultra-religious political movements that have risen up in recent months and seem set to play a major role in elections that must be held by summer next year, though they are unlikely to win a majority. Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal said the protests were part of a “conspiracy” to weaken the government, which is still run by the party of ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was removed by the Supreme Court in July over unreported income. “There are attempts to create a chaos in (the) country,” Ahsan Iqbal said on state-run Pakistan TV. “I have to say with regret that a political party that is giving its message to people based on a very sacred belief is being used in the conspiracy that is aimed at spreading anarchy in the country,” Iqbal added, without mentioning who he considered responsible. Earlier on Saturday, Pakistan’s army chief called on the civilian government to end the protest while “avoiding violence from both sides”.