Thousands of Islamists from right-wing, religious and banned organisations demonstrated in Islamabad on Tuesday, calling on Pakistan not to reopen its Afghan border to NATO and US supplies.
Hafiz Saeed, the head of banned charity Jamaat-ud-Dawa seen as a front for the Lashkar-e-Taiba terror group blamed for the 2008 Mumbai attacks addressed the heavily guarded crowd, after being banned from a similar rally last month.
The Defence of Pakistan coalition called the protest with parliament due to debate recommendations for resetting Pakistan’s troubled relationship with the United States to pave the way for Islamabad to reopen NATO supply lines.
The two land border crossings were closed on November 26 after US air strikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers along the Afghan border.
“American agents will once again sneak into Pakistan and start killing our innocent citizens,” Saeed told the crowd.
“People of Pakistan will never allow a resumption of NATO supplies and if Pakistani leaders, including army chief General Ashfaq Kayani, think they cannot safeguard national interests, they should step down,” he added.
Pakistan had put Saeed under house arrest a month after the Mumbai attacks, but he was released in 2009 and in 2010 the Supreme Court upheld his release on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence to detain him.
The group of several thousand protestors waved party flags and chanted “death to America,” “American subjugation is unacceptable,” “down with the America-India-Israel nexus,” and called for holy war, an AFP reporter said.
The coalition has attracted large turnouts at rallies across the country that some see as a build up to contesting Pakistan’s next general election, widely expected within the next year.
Banners denounced the government for its alleged US bias and branded NATO troops fighting the Taliban a “murderous alliance”.
“Our main target is to steer Pakistan out of the so-called war on terror, which is directed against Muslims,” said the coalition’s chairman Maulana Sami ul-Haq, who runs an extremist madrassa that educated several Taliban leaders.
He warned the government of “serious consequences” if it again allowed NATO supplies to transit through Pakistan and described lawmakers as “hypocrites” who had a one-track agenda of appeasing the United States.
Hundreds of riot police stood alert at the heavily guarded site of the demonstration overlooking parliament and the presidential palace.
Pakistan’s 10-year alliance in the US-led “war on terror” and in neighbouring Afghanistan is deeply unpopular among ordinary Pakistanis who blame it for much of the Islamist violence sweeping the country.