One man was killed and a police station partly burned as supporters of an anti-government cleric clashed with police in several Pakistani cities on Friday, officials said, before two large anti-government demonstrations planned for next week.
Activist and cleric Tahir ul-Qadri has called for the government to be toppled by the end of the month. He plans marches on Sunday to protest deadly clashes between his supporters and police in June. Another protest, led by opposition politician Imran Khan, is set to march on the capital on Thursday.
The planned demonstrations have unnerved Pakistan's fledgling civilian government. The nuclear-armed nation of 180 million has a history of coups and street protests.
Some in the ruling party fear the protesters may be receiving support from elements in the country's powerful military. Some officers are unhappy after former military chief Pervez Musharraf was put on trial for treason last year.
Musharraf deposed Nawaz Sharif, the current prime minister, in a coup in 1999 but was forced to step down in 2008. Sharif returned from exile shortly afterwards and won a landslide victory in last year's polls.
But criticism has been mounting from both Qadri and Khan, who are calling on the government to resign. Qadri says the government is corrupt and Khan says it is failing to investigate election irregularities.
In recent days, Pakistan's government has stationed the military around key installations in Islamabad and banned gatherings of more than five people in the capital. Qadri, who runs a network of schools, says they have also arrested hundreds of his supporters.
"The Punjab police have lost all humanity," he said in a televised speech Friday. "The rulers have become terrorists."
Several families of detained activists told Reuters that police arrived in the middle of the night, banging down doors and dragging men out of their beds with no explanation.
The government says only a few dozen arrests have been made. But provincial law minister Rana Mashhood Ahmad told Reuters Friday that Qadri will be arrested and charged with terrorism offenses for inciting violence.
Qadri's supporters clashed with police late on Friday afternoon after trying to move barricades the security services had erected around his house in the eastern city of Lahore.
The supporters brought a crane to move shipping containers blocking off the residence and threw stones at police who tried to stop them by firing tear gas. Police withdrew from the street and women activists armed with batons surrounded Qadri's house.
Clashes were also reported elsewhere in Punjab, Pakistan's wealthiest and most populous province and the political power base of the prime minister.
Abdul Majeeb, 26, was shot dead during clashes between Qadri supporters and police in the town of Bhakkar, 320 kilometers southwest of the capital, said Dr Saad Ahmad at Nishtar hospital in Multan.
Qadri supporters ransacked a police station and set parts of it on fire in the city of Qaidabad, 200 kilometers southwest of the capital, witnesses said, after some of their colleagues had been arrested.
Protesters also seized a police inspector and two constables in Depalpur, 360 kilometers south of the capital, police said.