Four people were killed as hardline Islamic groups opposed to Pakistan's support for possible US strikes on Afghanistan clashed with police in Karachi Friday, but fears of nationwide mass unrest proved unfounded.
In a boost for President Pervez Musharraf's handling of the crisis, turnouts for demonstrations after Friday prayers in most major cities were below expectations and passed off peacefully.
The exception was Karachi, where at least four people died and three more were injured as the protests turned violent in Afghan-dominated areas of the city.
At least 10 police officers were injured after being pelted with stones by small groups of demonstrators. In attacks on symbols of western influence, a liquor store was torched and outlets of McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken had their windows smashed.
Police had used tear gas and baton charges before opening fire on some of the militants. At least 100 arrests were made.
More than 40,000 people attended a rally in the western district of Pakistan's biggest city, which is home to 10 million people.
The crowd burned US flags and effigies of US President George W. Bush but there was no repeat of the violence seen earlier in the day.
A coalition of Islamic parties had set Friday as the launch date for a protest movement they claimed would take Pakistan to the brink of civil war.
Tens of thousands of police were deployed in cities across the country and an army spokesman said troops were also on standby.
But demonstrations in Islamabad, Lahore and Rawalpindi, and the two big cities closest to Afghanistan -- Quetta and Peshawar -- all appeared to be passing off without incident.
A government spokesman said less than 100,000 people had turned out nationwide. "Its not that many out of a population of 145 million," he added.
Some 10,000 turned out in Peshawar, 3,000 in Quetta and 1,500 in Islamabad, witnesses said.
Police in Quetta ordered foreigners to stay in their hotels but there were no reports of violence by late afternoon.
In Lahore, the leader of Pakistan's main Islamist party told a rally of 25,000 supporters to prepare to march on Islamabad if Musharraf stuck by his support for the United States.
"We have yet to decide about marching on Islamabad, but people should be ready because we could give such a call at any time," said Ameer Qazi Hussain Ahmed.
There have been demonstrations every day since Musharraf announced last week that he would support possible military action against Afghanistan over the terror attacks on the United States.
But until Friday they had been largely peaceful and small by Pakistan's standards. Mainstream political parties who are supported by the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis have not backed the call for protests.
The army last week deployed extra troops to protect airports, which radical Islamists have threatened to seize if Pakistan is used as a launch pad for an attack on Afghanistan.
Police and paramilitary troops have been positioned around US and other foreign consulates in major cities. Western embassies and multinational companies have evacuated non-essential staff.
Protestors in Peshawar were mostly members of the hardline Jamiat-Ulema-i-Islami (JUI).
"This is just the beginning. If the Americans dare to attack Afghanistan, then the real jihad will start," one JUI official, who refused to give his name, told AFP.
But despite a call for a general strike in the city, which lies just across the Khyber Pass from Afghanistan, it appeared to be mostly business as usual. As on most other Fridays, shops were generally closed.
Friday sermons at the main mosques showed the mixed sentiments in the city. Several fiery speeches were given in the Old City, while in the more plush University Town and Saddar Bazaar the tone was less emotional -- KARACHI (AFP)
© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)