PESHAWAR, Pakistan Police killed three protesters during a nationwide strike yesterday that yielded mixed results for militant Muslim groups attempting to attract broad-based support.
In cities throughout Pakistan, police fired tear gas and smacked protesters with bamboo sticks to break up processions that in recent weeks have become both smaller and increasingly militant in opposing the U.S. military campaign against Afghanistan’s Taliban government.
The most serious clash came in the southern Pakistani town of Shahdan Lund, about 350 miles southwest of Islamabad, where police fired into a stone-throwing crowd that was attempting to block railroad tracks.
Three protesters died of bullet wounds; four others were wounded. Local newspaper reports said police were attempting to rescue fellow officers being held hostage by the angry crowd.
A coalition of Muslim groups had called a nationwide strike yesterday; it had earlier obtained backing from the nation’s largest mainstream political party, Muslim League.
It managed to shut down shops in cities such as Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. But in Peshawar, it failed to generate much enthusiasm. Shopkeepers closed their doors as fist-pumping protesters approached, only to reopen them after the mob had gone.
“Coming, coming, the Taliban are coming,” chanted one group of about 500, walking through Peshawar’s downtown Old City.
Wajid Khan, 27, who operates a shop of fabrics, saw them coming and closed down.
“We can’t bear this again and again,” Mr. Khan said. “I’ll open later when they’re gone.”
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who was to meet President Bush in New York later today, claims that public protests that erupted after the beginning of U.S. air strikes on Oct. 7 reflect the viewpoint of less than one in 10 Pakistanis.
Gen. Musharraf has called for the bombing to end before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins later this month, a request the United States is unlikely to grant.
He faces a delicate task in maintaining his support for the U.S. campaign against the Taliban regime and its guest, Osama bin Laden, the main suspect in the September 11 attacks on the United States.
The U.S. bombing is widely unpopular in Pakistan, even though broad support for the public protests has never materialized.
With Gen. Musharraf who assumed power after a 1999 military coup out of the country, police and army presence on the streets was unusually heavy.
Security forces mounted machine guns on top of the cabs of trucks, filled them with rifle-toting police, and drove through the streets in a show of force.
Marches in the morning ended with Friday prayers, with worshipers spilling out of mosques onto the streets where they kneeled on straw mats.
Samiul Haq, leader of the coalition that organized the strike, lashed out at the United States with his sermon at the Mohabat Khan Mosque.
“America is always against Muslims whether they are Palestinians, in Chechnya, in Kosovo and now it is attacking Afghanistan and killing innocent civilians,” he said durng the sermon.
He did not mention the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States in which nearly 5,000 innocent civilians died.
Before yesterday, authorities arrested two leading clerics and charged them with treason for calling for the overthrow of the Musharraf government.
Mr. Haq chose his words carefully at yesterday’s sermon.
“Our struggle will continue until there is a change of policy or a change of government,” he said.
Afterward came an afternoon of noisy demonstrations, one of which was dubbed the “Death to America” rally.
With posters of bin Laden held high, the crowd cheered when someone chopped the head off an effigy of President Bush, splattering people nearby with fake blood.
In other cities where traffic was light and shops stayed closed, it was difficult to gauge public support for the strike because yesterday also was a national holiday.
A year ago, the Pakistani government set the day aside to honor the birthday of national poet Allama Iqbal.