A plane carrying a prominent Pakistani cleric was diverted from the capital Islamabad on Monday where his supporters clashed with police amid government concerns about the return of a man who describes himself as a revolutionary.
The aircraft carrying Tahirul Qadri, who is usually based in Canada, circled above Benazir Bhutto International Airport for hours before it was diverted to Lahore, an airport official said.
A Reuters reporter outside the airport said police fired tear gas and fought running battles with 2,000 Qadri supporters, in chaotic scenes rarely seen in the usually quiet Pakistani capital.
Police had cordoned off major roads leading to the airport with cargo containers, and blocked mobile phone services to prevent protesters from communicating with each other.
At least eight people including a policeman were killed in Lahore last week when protesters clashed with police in a standoff over Qadri.
In remarks issued ahead of his return, Qadri said he was ready to lead a “revolution” against the government and praised the army.
Qadri, who champions religious tolerance and once issued a fatwa against the Taliban, is a divisive figure in Pakistan where he made headlines last year when he led mass rallies against the previous government.
His comeback comes at an uneasy time in Pakistan after the army announced an all-out offensive against militants on the Afghan border, triggering a wave of refugees from the region. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has long been opposed to military action and the decision to send troops there was seen as a major win for the army.
Qadri’s sudden ascent to prominence has prompted speculation that the military, which ruled Pakistan for decades, may be using him as a proxy in its efforts to sideline the civilian government.
“Long live the army!” and “Revolution will come!” chanted his supporters who had gathered outside the airport in the military garrison city of Rawalpindi near Islamabad.
“We just want to give a peaceful welcome to our leader but they (government) pounded us with heavy tear gas,” said one protester, Tajamul Hussain, in his early 20s.
“Their days are numbered, God willing Doctor Qadri will bring revolution to Pakistan.”
Qadri’s reappearance comes at a tense time in Pakistan after the army announced an all-out offensive against militants on the Afghan border, triggering a wave of refugees from the region.