ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan diverted a passenger plane carrying an anti-government cleric to Lahore on Monday out of security concerns, said an official, leading to a standoff in which the cleric refused for hours to get off the aircraft while it waited on the tarmac.
The Pakistani cleric, Tahir-ul-Qadri, lives mostly in Canada but has a large following in his network of mosques and religious centers across Pakistan. Last year he threw the capital into crisis for days when he led rallies of thousands of people in the center of Islamabad to demand electoral reforms.
This time he returned to the limelight — and the country — promising to lead more rallies against the government.
Qadri was scheduled to arrive on an Emirates flight from Dubai Monday morning, but the flight was first delayed and then diverted in-flight to Lahore, said a spokesman for the Civil Aviation Authority, Abid Qaimkhani.
The Dubai-based airline told The Associated Press that the flight was diverted on the instruction of Pakistani authorities. They said the crew and passengers were safe and that they were working on getting passengers to their original destination.
The cleric's supporters clashed with police as they tried to get to the airport in Rawalpindi next to the capital, and the police used tear gas to try to keep them away.
The Monday incident came after an even more serious altercation last week that heightened tensions ahead of Qadri's return. Eight people were shot and killed during clashes between Qadri's supporters and police in Lahore on Tuesday. Both sides blamed the other for the shooting. The altercation started when police tried to remove barriers around Qadri's residence and religious center.
Authorities appeared to be preparing for similar violence with Qadri's supporters even before he'd arrived. They cut off cell phone service in parts of Islamabad and Rawalpindi in the morning and used shipping containers to block off access to areas of the city where there are sensitive government offices. Senior police officer Mirza Tahir Sikandar said 30 police were injured during Monday's clashes.
Once in Lahore, the government and Qadri negotiated for hours as officials tried to encourage him to leave the plane.
The cleric first demanded top military figures meet him at the airport to ensure his safety, said provincial Law Minister Rana Mashood. The government instead brought in some of Qadri's close relatives and party officials to talk to him, said Mashood.
The cleric later demanded an armored vehicle and guards be brought to the tarmac, Mashood said. The situation was resolved once the provincial Gov. Chaudhry Mohamad Sarwar, called Qadri directly and agreed to meet him at the airport and escort him to his home in Lahore, said Mashood.
Qadri on Twitter accused the government of hijacking the plane and demanded to be taken back to Islamabad. But by late afternoon he said he had accepted an offer to leave the plane with a security escort.
The cleric's return comes at a particularly sensitive time for the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. A little over a week ago the military launched a long-awaited military offensive against militants in the North Waziristan tribal area bordering Afghanistan. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced as the military carries out airstrikes against militant targets.
Associated Press writers Zaheer Babar in Lahore and Adam Schreck in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.