Gunfire and rioting erupted Wednesday as tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Pakistan’s third straight day of violent protests over the Prophet Muhammad cartoons. Three people were killed, including an 8-year-old boy.
The European Union condemned both the cartoons, first printed in a Danish newspaper in September, and what it called “systematic incitement to violence” against European diplomatic missions by some unidentified governments.
At least 19 people have died in demonstrations and violence this month related to the drawings, according to an Associated Press count. Eleven have died in Afghanistan, five in Pakistan and one each in Kenya, Lebanon and Somalia.
Pakistani intelligence officials have said members of outlawed Islamic militant groups have joined the protests and may be inciting violence to undermine the government of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
Rioting also broke out Wednesday near the South Waziristan tribal region, where security officials have said foreign fighters linked to al-Qaida are hiding.
A senior police official said they were investigating whether the rioting was planned. He said the main spark for the violence in the northwestern city of Peshawar appeared to be riots Tuesday in Lahore, where two people were killed.
70,000 on a rampage
More than 70,000 people flooded the streets of Peshawar, said Saeed Wazir, a senior police officer. The huge crowd went on a rampage, torching businesses and fighting police who struck back with tear gas and batons. A bus terminal operated by South Korea’s Sammi Corp. was torched, police said.
Protesters also burned a KFC restaurant, three movie theaters and the offices of the main mobile phone company. A Norwegian mobile phone company’s offices were also ransacked. Gunfire was heard near the burning KFC, as police tried to clear people from a main street, witnesses said.
An 8-year-old boy died after being struck in the face by a bullet fired by a protester, police officer Shahid Khan said. A 25-year-old man was killed by an electric cable that was snapped by gunfire, said the man’s cousin, Jehangir Khan.
At least 45 people were injured, Khan and witnesses said.
“The European newspapers have abused our religion,” said demonstrator Shaukat Khan, his eyes streaming from tear gas. “We are expressing our anger. Usually protesters are peaceful but some miscreants do bad things and other people join them.”
Schools shut for a week
Paramilitary forces were deployed, and the government announced that schools and colleges would be closed in northwestern Pakistan for a week to protect students. Authorities also announced an indefinite ban on rallies in eastern Pakistan. Most shops, public transport and other businesses were shut.
Demonstrations have erupted around Asia, Europe and the Middle East over the cartoons of the prophet, which first appeared in a Danish newspaper in September and have been reprinted by some other Western newspapers. In Afghanistan, 11 people died in riots last week; five people have died in Pakistan in the last two days.
Many Muslims regard any depiction of the Prophet Muhammad as blasphemous. They reject the newspapers’ explanations that the cartoons represent free speech. One of the drawings depicted the prophet with a turban shaped like a bomb.
Riots near South Waziristan
There also was rioting Wednesday in the northwestern town of Tank, near the South Waziristan tribal region where security officials have said al-Qaida-linked foreign fighters are hiding. Protesters set fire to 30 shops selling CDs, DVDs, and videos, said Attiq Wazir, a police official. Suspected Islamic militants had warned music shops to close, witnesses said.
One policeman was injured when a protester opened fire to resist arrest.
On Tuesday, a security official said members of the outlawed militant group Sipah-e-Sahaba and others from Jamaat al-Dawat — which is linked to the outlawed Laskhar-e-Tayyaba group — were among the rioters, and were trying to turn the furor over the cartoons against Musharraf’s government.
In the eastern city of Lahore, fighting flared for a second straight day Wednesday. A 30-year-old man was shot dead in a clash with police as about 1,500 students rallied outside a university, hospital and police officials said.
U.S. restaurants torched
Thousands of protesters went on a rampage in Lahore on Tuesday, burning Western businesses including McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut restaurants.
In Israel, Amitai Sandarovich, a cartoonist for the Yediot Ahronot daily, said he was asking Jewish artists to draw anti-Semitic cartoons.
Sandarovich said he came up with the idea after an Iranian newspaper launched a contest for cartoons about the Holocaust in response to the Prophet Muhammad drawings.
“I think that a strong nation needs to know how to laugh at itself, and the Jewish nation has a long history of laughing at itself,” Sandarovich said.
Austria denounces violence over cartoons
Austrian President Heinz Fischer, whose country holds the EU presidency, denounced violence over the drawings, saying the response was inappropriate.
But he told the European Parliament that freedom of expression must not go against the need to protect religious sensitivities and values of other cultures.
“I take respect for religious feelings ... as an important element in the coexistence of people and nations,” Fischer said. He noted that Islam is interpreted to ban any depiction of Muhammad, adding that “one must not offend against this principle twice — not only by disrespecting this ban, but also by reinforcing this hurtful violation of a taboo in the form of a caricature.”
He also condemned unidentified governments for inciting violence, an apparent reference to the leadership of Syria and Iran which the United States has accused of stoking the violence.
“I strongly and unreservedly condemn the attitude of governments who allow diplomatic missions, embassies and innocent people to be attacked,” Fischer said.