The government’s announced effort to tamp down anger by providing a national holiday for peaceful protest clearly backfired, offering instead what seemed like an official sanction to violence.
Critics called the holiday a pandering attempt to please hard-line Islamist parties, whose influence has been on the rise here in recent years.
“This was a terrible idea,” said Mehreen Zahra-Malik, a columnist with the News, a national English-language daily. “It was time to calm people down and not give a stamp of approval to protesters, many of whom would just use it as an excuse for violence. . . . There was clearly going to be violence.”
Another commentator, Marvi Sirmed, said on Twitter: “It is sad, so very sad that we could never make a government realize that they don’t have to kneel before mullah,” a reference to Muslim clerics.
Despite repeated U.S. disavowals of the privately made video and denunciations of its content, many Pakistanis remained unconvinced, seeing it as an intentional calumny against the prophet Muhammad.
Most of the fatalities and destruction came in the southern port city of Karachi, where Saghir Ahmed, health minister for Sindh province, said 14 people died, including two policemen shot by rioters. At least 80 people were wounded, Roshan Ali Shaikh, the city’s police commissioner, said.
In the northwestern city of Peshawar, rescue workers and other officials said six people were killed, including a policeman and a member of a television crew, in rampages that also left about 60 people wounded. Television journalists on the scene said police opened fire with live rounds as mobs torched two movie houses.
Demonstrators also battled security forces for the second day in the usually calm capital, Islamabad, in the north. They blocked major highways there and in neighboring Rawalpindi and set a tollbooth and vehicles on fire.
Fourteen police officers were injured in the chaos, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said. The Pakistani army was mobilized and successfully protected the U.S. Embassy, presidential residence and Parliament building.
In the eastern city of Lahore, officials said 12 riot police officers and four protesters were injured during pitched battles involving thousands of demonstrators.
The rioters in all four cities targeted U.S. diplomatic facilities but failed to reach them, thwarted by Pakistani police and paramilitary forces who had set up barbed-wire barricades and steel shipping containers to deter demonstrators.