PAT chief refuses to disembark at Lahore airport unless the military assures him of its protection.
Tahir-ul-Qadri’s plane was diverted to Lahore from its original destination of Islamabad on Monday, according to a spokesman for the Civil Aviation Authority, as the cleric returned to lead a “revolution” against the government.
Qadri, who drew thousands of supporters to a sit-in in Islamabad in January last year, arrives a week after 11 people were killed when his followers clashed with police in Lahore. Police were attempting to remove security barriers from outside Qadri’s home when the clashes occurred, with over 80 Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) activists also being injured in the assault.
Qadri refused to disembark at Lahore airport, claiming that the government had targeted his followers and would not hesitate to target him as well. He also criticized the government for diverting his plane to Lahore and preventing him from addressing his speakers in Islamabad. He demanded the military be deployed to the airport, adding that he would be willing to go to his house in Model Town Extension if the Army assured him of its protection.
After a standoff that lasted nearly four hours, Qadri agreed to disembark if Punjab Governor Chaudhry Sarwar would personally escort him to his home in Model Town Extension amid reports that Emirates airline had decided to appeal to the government to take action and evict him from the plane. He said he was afraid he would be attacked if the governor did not accompany him, adding, “if I’m attacked, he will embrace shahadat with me.” After Qadri left with Sarwar, Emirates said in a statement that all passengers and crew had left the plane and the airline was making arrangements to get travellers to their destination.
Officials with the PAT movement said he would visit those injured in last week’s clashes in hospital before going to his Lahore home to work out a strategy.
Earlier, Information minister Pervaiz Rasheed told journalists Qadri’s actions had hijacked the plane and urged the PAT chief to disembark. He also told a press conference that the government had no plans to arrest Qadri or torture any of his party workers. “Every measure we have taken so far has been due to the ongoing security threat. The military is currently fighting a definitive battle with the Taliban and they could take advantage of this situation to target either the rally or the government,” he added.
A government official told Newsweek that Qadri would not have been allowed to leave the Islamabad airport if his plane had landed in the federal capital. “The Government of Pakistan issued orders to the district government stating that the leader of a political movement who reached Pakistan from London via Dubai was not allowed to leave the Islamabad airport,” said Tassadaq Hussain. “As soon as he [Qadri] had disembarked, the commissioner of the city had orders to tell him he was not allowed to leave the airport to lead his followers,” he added.
Another senior government official in the Interior Ministry, on condition of anonymity, told Newsweek the government had always intended to divert Qadri’s plane and had requested Emirates Airlines, on which Qadri is traveling, not to land EK-612 at Benazir International Airport. “It was already decided that the government would not permit Qadri to exit the plane and address his followers due to security threats to his life,” he said.
Qadri’s followers in Islamabad clashed with baton-wielding police overnight and through the morning, claiming at least 13 had been injured due to tear gas shelling and excessive force. “Over 200 passenger buses carrying around 3,000 of Dr. Qadri’s supporters reached Islamabad to receive their leader,” said Siddiq Qadri, one of the cleric’s protesting supporters.
Qadri’s supporters, armed with sticks and bricks, clashed with baton-wielding police at Islamabad’s airport. A spokesman for Islamabad police said more than 70 officers were wounded, with several suffering broken bones and head injuries.
The government sealed all routes leading in and out of the airport last night to prevent Qadri’s supporters from swarming the facility and posing a security risk, according to Saleem Ahmed, a government official. “Rangers, Airport Security Force and 6,000 policemen were deputed around the airport last night to ensure no one could enter,” said Ahmed. “No one was allowed to display a political banner due to the imposition of Ordinance 144,” he said, adding, “Mobile phone services were also suspended on government orders between 5 a.m. and 11 a.m.”
Before his departure from London, the PAT chief warned the government in a press conference that if anything happened to him, his party workers would offer his funeral prayers at Prime Minister’s House in Islamabad to register their protest. “If I am killed on my arrival, my workers should remain calm. But if they [government] kill any more of my workers, I will not be able to control the mob and we will be justified in staging a protest before Prime Minister’s House,” he said. “We have no intention of creating chaos or derailing the government,” he said, adding, “[but if someone died] It will only be the government who will be responsible for any loss to the state.”
Responding to an advertisement aired by the Punjab government in which it alleged that Qadri was under threat and his protest was endangering the military operation in North Waziristan, the PAT chief said: “We are not against the military operation, rather we are favoring it.”