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ISLAMABAD — Anti-government protesters stormed Pakistan’s state television building today, forcing the channel briefly off the air as they clashed with police and pushed closer to the prime minister’s residence.
The violence comes as part of the mass demonstrations led by cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri and opposition politician Imran Khan that demand Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif resign. Over the weekend, clashes between protesters and security forces killed three people and wounded hundreds in running street battles in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad.
Today, protesters and police clashed in various areas of the city’s Red Zone, a sprawling complex of government buildings and grassy lawns in the center of Islamabad. The protesters, armed with clubs and many wearing gas masks, hurled rocks at police. Five police officers, including a senior Islamabad police chief, and three protesters were taken to hospital, bleeding.
The protesters made it to a gate that surrounds the prime minister’s residence, where they were met by paramilitary Rangers and army troops.
They also stormed into the building of the Pakistani state broadcaster, located in another area of the Red Zone, and forced the television briefly off the air. Inside the state TV building, the protesters moved through the corridors with sticks and clubs, smashing equipment as visibly nervous employees looked on.
The rallies against Sharif constitute the biggest threat to his government after a little more than a year in office. Several rounds of negotiations between representatives of Khan and Qadri and the government have failed to make any headway.
The two opposition leaders allege widespread fraud in the country’s May 2013 election, in which Sharif’s party won by a landslide. International observers had found no evidence indicating rampant election tampering.
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Sharif has refused to step down. Rumors swirled around the capital today after several television stations reported that the military forced Sharif to leave office, something the army later called “totally baseless.”
The protests began with a march to Islamabad from the eastern city of Lahore on the country’s Independence Day, Aug. 14. Once in the capital, the protesters camped out near the parliament, pushing their demands. Khan and Qadri had called for millions to join them but crowds at the most numbered tens of thousands at the height of the demonstrations.
The rallies initially remained peaceful, though they forced a lockdown of Islamabad. Violence first erupted on Saturday, with police firing tear gas and clashing with protesters who pushed closer to the seat of government in the Red Zone.
Today, Qadri’s followers reached the gate of the prime minister’s residence — the first of at least two layers of security protecting the house, a few hundred meters (yards) from the residence itself — and staged a sit-in there.
“We have reached near the prime minister’s residence. Wait for some time and you will hear the news of our ultimate victory,” Qadri urged them.
At the state TV, senior official Athar Farooq said 20 cameras went missing as protesters overran the station. “The intruders seemed well trained” and were taking instructions over mobile phones during the break-in, he said.
Several of the protesters took down Sharif’s portrait from a wall, threw it on the floor and stomped on it in anger.
Ismatullah Niazi, another senior TV official, told The Associated Press that the intruders also destroyed computers and other equipment, fought with employees and took food from the cafeteria.
Army troops and paramilitary Rangers later reached the building and began to clear it of protesters. Some private Pakistani TV stations showed footage of protesters embracing the Rangers and agreeing to leave.
“You have come to the wrong place, please leave immediately as this is embarrassing for everybody — for your leaders and for those working here,” a military official said over a loud speaker.
Earlier, Defense Minister Khwaja Asif told state TV that the protesters are seeking to “create chaos in the country, they want to defame Pakistan in the eyes of the world.”
Khan, the former cricket player, distanced himself from those who stormed the TV station.
“We have not asked anybody to enter any buildings, they are not our people,” he said, speaking to supporters from the back of his truck.