Protests erupted across Pakistan on Saturday, compelling the government to call out army troops and paramilitary rangers after nightfall to restore order in cities and towns filled with angry crowds.

The nationwide protests developed after security forces in the capital launched a crackdown on thousands of religious demonstrators. Conflict began when police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators camped on a highway interchange outside Islamabad, who fought back with clubs and stones. Hundreds of injuries were reported injured, with at least two people dead, according to accounts.

The demonstrators had initially called for a federal minister to be fired over a religious controversy, but by midday, many protesters were demanding that entire government step down. By evening, police had retreated and the protesters had regrouped, with more supporters joining them.

The confrontation came four months after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was ousted by the Supreme Court, leaving the country in the hands of a caretaker prime minister and cabinet from Sharif’s party.

The protests began on Nov. 8 over a proposed change in election laws — just a few words of text — that weakened an oath that all candidates for public office must repeat, swearing they believe that Muhammad was the final prophet. Pakistan’s population is 95 percent Muslim.

Pakistani security officials clash with supporters of the Movement in Service to the Finality of the Prophet, a religious group, in Islamabad on Saturday as the government tries to disperse protesters who have blocked the main highway for days. (Sohail Shahzad/EPA/EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

The government swiftly apologized for the “clerical error,” but the protest leaders continued to push for further action, especially the firing of the law minister, Zahid Hamid.

Army officials first urged the government to respond “peacefully,” saying that violent confrontation was “not in the national interest,” but police and civilian officials seemed overwhelmed by the day-long outpouring of unrest.

As the day progressed, other demonstrators closed off highways, shut down sections of metropolitan Rawalpindi, Karachi and Lahore, and filled scores of public squares and crossroads across the vast country of 207 million.

Officials blocked all television news channels at midafternoon, but information traveled by phone and text messages. Protesters attacked and injured a legislator from the ruling party and vandalized the home of law minister Hamid.

The protests were spearheaded by a movement dedicated to defending the honor of Muhammad and the country’s strict laws against religious blasphemy. The group reveres a man who assassinated a provincial governor in 2011 because the official had defended a Christian woman accused of blaspheming against Islam.

The leader of the protest movement, Maulvi Khadim Allama Hussain Rizvi, remained at the Faizabad site all day, wearing a gas mask and using a wheelchair because of a permanent disability. According to news reports, he chanted slogans praising the “finality of the prophet” and welcoming new protesters.

A police officer fires rubber bullets to disperse protesters Saturday during a clash in Islamabad. Pakistani police have launched an operation to clear an intersection linking capital Islamabad with the garrison city of Rawalpindi where an Islamist group's supporters have camped out for the last 20 days. (Anjum Naveed/AP)

The police assault at Faizabad had been repeatedly delayed for days, as Rizvi and his followers ignored numerous deadlines to disperse. Facing thousands of security forces, the protesters resisted for hours, even throwing back tear gas canisters. Meanwhile, the reports of sympathetic rallies elsewhere created a growing sense of confrontation and loss of government control.

“We are winning, and we will be on the roads as long as the government stays,” said Sayed Sabtain, 26, a protester in the Faizabad crowd. “If they think they can defeat us with bullets, we are here to die for the respect of the prophet.”

In Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, a Washington Post correspondent reported that many shopping areas had been shut down amid throngs of protesters, with dozens injured. As crowds gathered near the city’s international airport, some flights were canceled.

The group that started the protests was once considered a fringe religious movement built around the cult of Mumtaz Qadri, who assassinated Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer and was hanged for murder last year.

The group is from the mainstream Barelvi sect of Sunni Islam, which has the largest Muslim following in Pakistan. It crusades against Ahmedis, a religious minority that claims to be Muslim, and it has accused the government of favoring Ahmedis by trying to change the election law.

For days, as traffic jams caused by the protests snarled commuters for hours, the government attempted to negotiate. But several days ago, an Islamabad court called the protest an illegal “act of terror” and ordered the government to break it up. The government gave a final dispersal deadline of midnight Friday, and at dawn the police assault commenced.

Hussain reported from Rawalpindi. Nisar Medhi in Karachi and Haq Naqaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.

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