Pakistan state TV goes off air as anti-government protesters storm building, clash with police

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ISLAMABAD — Pakistani anti-government protesters stormed the state TV building on Monday, forcing the channel briefly off air as they clashed anew with police and pushed further into a sprawling government complex in the capital, Islamabad, in an effort to reach the prime minister's residence.

The violence is the latest in the turmoil roiling Pakistan, where anti-government cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri and cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan have been leading twin protests since mid-August calling on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to resign. Over the weekend, three people died and hundreds were injured in what amounted to running street battles between the police and the demonstrators.

The rallies against Sharif constitute the biggest threat to his government little more than one year in office. Qadri and Khan allege widespread fraud in the country's May 2013 election, in which Sharif's party won by a landslide.

International observers found no evidence indicating rampant election tampering. Several rounds of negotiations between representatives of Khan and Qadri and the government have failed to make any headway.

The protests began with a march to Islamabad from the eastern city of Lahore on the country's Independence Day, Aug. 14. Once in the capital, the protesters camped out near the parliament, pushing their demands. Khan and Qadri had called for millions to join them but crowds at the most numbered tens of thousands at the height of the demonstrations.

The rallies initially remained peaceful, though they forced a lockdown of Islamabad and badly harmed the city's business life. Violence first erupted on Saturday, with police firing tear gas and clashing with protesters who pushed closer to the seat of government in the capital's Red Zone.

On Monday, Pakistani television showed images of the protesters and police clashing in various areas of the Red Zone, a sprawling complex of government buildings and grassy lawns in the center of Islamabad. The protesters, many of whom were wearing gas masks and were armed with batons, could be seen hurling rocks at policemen.

The protesters made it to a gate that surrounds the prime minister's residence where they were met by paramilitary Rangers and army troops. The gate is the first of at least two layers of security protecting the house and is a few hundred meters (yards) from the residence itself.

Once at the gate, the protesters staged a sit-in and did not appear to seek to go further as Qadri asked his followers to stay put.

Pakistan's state broadcaster said protesters also attacked its building, located in another area of the Red Zone. It went off the air briefly while private channels showed images of protesters inside the state TV building, moving through the corridors with sticks and clubs and smashing equipment as visibly nervous employees looked on.

Army troops and paramilitary Rangers then reached the building and began to clear it of protesters. As the TV came back on air, it broadcast images of protesters embracing the Rangers and agreeing to leave.

There were no immediate reports of injuries in Monday's violece.

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