Female supporters of Tahirul Qadri, a Sufi cleric and the leader of the Awami Tehreek
hold his portrait during a protest in Karachi, condemning Tuesday's deaths of their
in Lahore June 19, 2014.
(Reuters) - A prominent cleric landed in Pakistan on Monday after his plane was
diverted from the capital Islamabad where his supporters clashed with police amid
government concerns about the return of a man who describes himself as a revolutionary.
Tahirul Qadri, a Pakistani preacher turned political activist who usually lives
Canada, is a divisive figure in Pakistan where he made headlines last year when
he led mass rallies against the previous government.
The plane carrying Qadri circled above Benazir Bhutto International Airport near
Islamabad for an hour and a half before it was diverted to the eastern city of Lahore.
"We want no corruption, we want no terrorism in our country," Qadri told Reuters
aboard the plane. "We want total transparency of institutions."
In chaotic scenes rarely seen in the usually orderly Pakistani capital, police
fired tear gas and fought running battles with Qadri supporters outside the airport
after 2,000 protesters gathered there to greet their leader.
Qadri's sudden ascent to prominence has prompted speculation that the army, which
ruled Pakistan for decades, may be using him as a proxy in its efforts to sideline
the civilian government. His comeback comes at an uneasy time for Prime Minister
Nawaz Sharif whose civilian government has failed to engage Taliban militants in
peace talks, prompting the army to launch a major offensive against the militants.
Even after the aircraft landed in Lahore, Qadri and his supporters refused to
leave the plane, demanding it fly back to Islamabad or the army send a representative
to give him protection.
Qadri's spokesman Shahid Mursaleen said Qadri wanted to stage an Arab spring-style
revolt and install a government that would enforce reform, tackle terrorism and
"He wants to bring a peaceful democratic revolution," Mursaleen told Reuters.
"He wants to topple the whole system."
Outside Lahore airport, about 700 supporters held a peaceful rally shouting "Long
It is hard to estimate Qadri's popularity in a country with few reliable opinion
polls but his proximity to the army could catapult him to the centre of a brewing
Discontent with the government is already high due to power shortages that have
crippled the economy as well as a persistent Taliban insurgency which stages attacks
around the country.
Reflecting the government's anxiety, police had cordoned off major roads leading
to the airport serving Islamabad 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.
"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
"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
"Their days are numbered, God willing Doctor Qadri will bring revolution to Pakistan."
(Writing by Maria Golovnina; additional reporting by Syed Raza Hassan in Islamabad;
Editing by Jeremy Laurence)