Fiery anti-U.S. demonstrations swept through the capital and several other cities Friday as thousands of Pakistanis furious about an anti-Islam video privately produced in America clashed with police in one of the worst waves of violence to hit the nation in recent years.
In Islamabad, protesters turned the city's tree-lined boulevards and avenues into a battle zone as they toppled freight containers set up as barriers and pelted riot police with rocks while unsuccessfully trying to storm a heavily guarded enclave housing the U.S. Embassy and other diplomatic missions. Across the country, at least 18 people were killed in the violence and more than 100 injured, authorities said.
In the northwest city of Peshawar, protesters set a movie house on fire and clashed with police, who used tear gas to turn back demonstrators. There were reports of police opening fire to disperse protesters, and at least one person, a driver for a Pakistani television channel, died of a bullet wound, authorities said.
In Karachi, scene of one of the worst spasms of violence, protesters set set fire to cars and several gas stations and movie houses. Pakistani news reports said that at least 15 people had died in the violence and 100 had been injured.
The Pakistani government had sanctioned Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, as a day to honor Islam's prophet Muhammad, and as a day to peacefully protest the release of a crudely made movie trailer posted on YouTube that portrayed Muhammad as a womanizer and a fraud. The release of the 14-minute video sparked violent protests in the Arab world and several other Muslim countries.
The furor over the video has waned to some degree, although Germany on Friday joined France and other nations in closing embassies in some Muslim countries.
But anger has revved up in Pakistan, where hard-line Islamist political parties have seized on the issue and have organized demonstrations almost daily.
The fervor reached a new height Friday, forcing the government to deploy soldiers to defend Islamabad's diplomatic enclave and block cellphone service in the capital and other large cities. Freight containers were positioned on streets leading to the enclave to bar the way of protesters.
On one street, throngs of demonstrators toppled two freight containers and clashed with police by the Serena Hotel, which regularly accommodates visiting diplomats and dignitaries.
"We can never tolerate any blasphemous words against our beloved prophet," said Shakeel Ahmad, a young shopkeeper, his eyes reddened from clouds of tear gas. "We are ready to sacrifice our lives for our prophet. And we want the Pakistani government to shut down the U.S. Embassy, expel all Americans and end all relations with the U.S."
The film, called "The Innocence of Muslims," was produced by a Southern California man and has been denounced by U.S. officials as an insult to Muslims.
Washington has taken additional steps to tamp down the anger created by the film, spending $70,000 for an ad broadcast on Pakistani television Thursday that featured President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton rejecting the video's contents and message and touting America's espousal of religious tolerance. The ad was in English but subtitled in Urdu, Pakistan's primary language.
The move, however, appeared to do little to appease people in a country where anti-American sentiment has pervaded society for years and continues to grow. Several protesters marching toward the diplomatic enclave in Islamabad said they wanted to see Washington do much more, including taking action against the man who made the film: Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an Egyptian immigrant living in Cerritos.
"Instead of punishing the blasphemer, the U.S. is protecting him," said Kashif Yaseen, a student in Islamabad. "Our anger will only calm down when the U.S. punishes this man. And the punishment should be the death sentence."
The Pakistani government's declaration of Friday as a day of protest was meant to give people an opportunity to vent their anger, though officials had urged demonstrators not to resort to violence. The decision prompted criticism from analysts and commentators, who warned that Islamist parties and movements would take it as license to lash out at the U.S. and the Pakistani government, which many fundamentalist leaders regard as subservient to Washington.
"Critics of the government's decision to declare a holiday express reservations that the move would encourage people to participate in the protests, which may turn violent," Pakistan's Daily Times newspaper stated in an editorial Friday. "The apprehension is not without weight."
Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira said the responsibility for Friday's violence lay with the country's Islamist parties and fundamentalist mullahs who encouraged protesters to act out violently.
"The [fundamentalist] leaders who called for these protests had the responsibility to calm down the protesters," Kaira said. "Instead, those leaders incited them…. Today, the enemies of Islam and those involved in this act [of blasphemy] would be very happy."
Special correspondents Nasir Khan in Islamabad and Zufiqar Ali in Peshawar contributed to this report.