Pakistan: Islamabad police clash with Qadri supporters

image source, AP
image captionQadri supporters had gathered for the return of their leader from Canada

Police in Pakistan have fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of supporters of a prominent anti-government cleric in the capital, Islamabad.

Crowds had gathered at the city's airport to welcome Tahirul Qadri from Canada where he lives, but his flight was diverted to Lahore.

He says he plans to lead a peaceful revolt against PM Nawaz Sharif.

At least eight people were killed last week when police in Lahore used live ammunition against his followers.

image captionMr Qadri, seen here on the rerouted flight to Lahore, says the government 'hijacked' his flight

Police had sealed off roads to Islamabad airport but some of the cleric's supporters - chanting "Islamic revolution" and "long live the army" - managed to break through the security cordon.

Television footage showed Qadri followers armed with sticks and stones fighting running battles with police wielding batons.

"We just want to give a peaceful welcome to our leader but they pounded us with tear gas," said one protester, Reuters news agency reported.

Mr Qadri's flight was rerouted to Lahore "to ensure the safety of the passengers and aircraft", a spokesman for Pakistan's Civil Aviation Authority told AFP news agency.

The daily Emirates flight EK612 from Dubai had approached the Pakistani capital to land but passengers found themselves circling overhead before being diverted several hundred kilometres east.

The cleric accused the government of hijacking the aircraft and refused to get off for several hours, but later agreed to leave in the presence of Punjab governor Mohammad Sarwar.

He told the BBC's Wietske Burema who was on the flight that he wants "democratic reforms". The government, he said, had been elected through "a rigged electoral process".

Eyewitness: Wietske Burema, BBC News on flight EK612

When the captain came over the tannoy to announce that the flight had been diverted for security reasons a groan went up - and some people started shouting, demanding they be flown to Islamabad. Tahirul Qadri had clearly been hoping for a tumultuous homecoming there.

Instead he held forth - from the comfort of his business class seat - to around a dozen or more of his followers and journalists. "This is a political hijacking," he said. He denounced Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz as supporters of terrorism and said he was terrified for his life. "They want to kill me."

As most other passengers trooped off the plane to discover their bags would not be coming off with them, Mr Qadri remained behind, vowing to stay put until he reached Islamabad or until the army came. In the end he was escorted out mild as you like several hours later, to meet the governor of the Punjab for friendly talks.

One passenger on the plane put it: "If he really cares about the people of Pakistan, why cause such disruption to their lives, closing roads and airports and diverting flights? It all seems like hot air to me. He's an idiot. Who starts a revolution from business class?"

image source, AFP
image captionTahirul Qadri returns to Pakistan at a time of renewed tension between the military and the government

Mr Qadri's return comes at a tense time, with the military on the offensive against militants in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan after a failed government peace initiative.

Last year Mr Qadri led mass protests against the previous civilian government ahead of general elections.

There is widespread suspicion in Pakistan that Mr Qadri's intervention is being encouraged by Pakistan's powerful military, following recent tensions with the prime minister, says the BBC's Andrew North in Islamabad.

But some have criticised the Pakistani government for over-reacting to his latest foray into the country's always complex politics, our correspondent adds.

Are you in Pakistan? What do you think of Mr Qadri? You can contact us by emailing using "Qadri" in the subject title.

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