LAHORE, Pakistan, Feb 26: Police fired tear gas to disperse around 100 young Islamists who tried to stage a protest over cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohammad today in defiance of a government ban on such rallies in central Pakistan.
The government banned public rallies in the central province of Punjab following violent protests earlier this month in the provincial capital Lahore in which two people were killed.
Witnesses said police fired tear gas as activists of the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami, the country's most influential Islamist group, shouted ''Death to America'' and ''Death to Denmark'' as they gathered in Lahore to begin a march. Up to 70 protesters were detained.
Earlier in the day, more than 100 activists of the main Islamist alliance, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), were detained in Lahore to prevent them from holding the rally, Amir Zulfiqar, a senior superintendent of police, told Reuters.
Jamaat-e-Islami is a major component of the six-party MMA.
Punjab Law Minister Raja Basharat said the government had banned the entry of MMA secretary-general Fazal-ur-Rehman, a fiery orator, into Lahore to prevent him from leading the protest.
MMA head Qazi Hussain Ahmed was detained in his party office in Lahore on Friday.
Authorities also detained Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, founder of the outlawed Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group, for the second time in a week, in his house in Lahore, an aide said.
POLICE OUT IN FORCE
Witnesses said paramilitary troops and police were out in force at all main roads of the city and had blocked the roads leading to the headquarters of Jamaat-e-Islami.
Cartoons first published in a Danish newspaper and reprinted in other European papers have sparked protests worldwide by Muslims who believe it is blasphemous to depict the Prophet.
The protests have increasingly targeted President Pervez Musharraf's military-led government for its alliance in the US-led war on terrorism.
Musharraf met with a group of Muslim clerics yesterday and said the government would highlight the sentiments of Muslims at international forums.
''We believe that such publications under the pretext of freedom of the press cannot be justified,'' the official Associated Press of Pakistan quoted him as saying.
Two people died in violent protests in Lahore earlier this month while three more people died in protests in the northwestern city of Peshawar.
While protests against the cartoons have subsided in Pakistan in recent days, the MMA has given a call for a countrywide strike on March 3, just ahead of an expected visit to Islamabad by US President George W Bush.
Musharraf said he would discuss the issue with the US president.