(AP) Thousands of anti-government protesters heeding the call of a fiery cleric rallied in the streets of the Pakistani capital Tuesday for a second day despite early morning clashes with police who fired off shots and tear gas to push back stone-throwing demonstrators.
The protest called by Tahir-ul-Qadri, a mysterious cleric who just recently returned from Canada, has galvanized many Pakistanis who say the current government has brought them only misery. But critics fear that Qadri and his demands for election reforms may derail the country's upcoming democratic elections, possibly at the behest of the country's powerful military.
During an early morning speech, Qadri demanded the government resign and called on his followers to stay until their demands are met. Many had brought blankets to ward off the cold and slept in the streets overnight.
I give you time ... to dissolve the national and all four provincial assemblies otherwise the nation will dissolve them on their own, he said. He vowed to address his followers again Tuesday.
The rally was largely peaceful until police and protesters clashed hours after Qadri's speech ended. Each side blamed the other for the incident.
Television footage showed police shooting into the air to push back protesters and a man on the ground being beaten by what appeared to be protesters. Demonstrators threw rocks at a vehicle, while others held up shells and an empty tear gas canister.
Minister of Interior Rehman Malik, speaking on Pakistani television, said some of the demonstrators had weapons and attacked police with stones.
Tahir-ul-Qadri has said that the marchers would remain peaceful but police have been stoned and shots were also fired, he said.
In an email to The Associated Press, a spokesman for Qadri, Shahid Mursaleen, blamed the entire incident on the security officials and said police had tried to arrest Qadri and opened fire without provocation.
Thousands of people remained on the streets after the clashes stopped. One city official put the number of protesters at roughly 30,000. He did not want to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Some of Qadri's reform proposals have sparked concern that the cleric is being used as a front for the Pakistani military to derail the upcoming vote, just as the country which has a history of coups prepares for its first transfer of power from one civilian government to another.
He has called for a military role in picking the caretaker government that will take over temporarily ahead of elections and has said it could stay in place longer than normal to enact necessary reforms.
The military is widely believed to dislike both the main political parties vying for power. Qadri has denied any such military backing. Elections are expected sometime this spring.
Associated Press writers Munir Ahmed and Zarar Khan contributed to this report.