PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — Several thousand people rallied Wednesday in northwestern Pakistan, denouncing the killing of 18 local villagers in an overnight raid they blamed on security forces and displaying the victims' bodies in the provincial capital in a sign of protest.
The outcry came as thousands of supporters of a fiery Muslim cleric continued their anti-government protest in the capital, Islamabad, for a third day, paralyzing key areas of the city.
The deaths of the villagers occurred late Tuesday in an area known as Khyber Agency. It's part of the tribal region where the Pakistani military has been waging a campaign against Islamic militants. Human rights groups and residents claim the operations are often laced with abuse and cause civilian casualties.
About 3,000 people gathered Wednesday outside the house of the governor of northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in Peshawar. They said gunmen wearing military uniforms stormed homes in their area and shot the villagers dead.
The protesters shouted anti-military slogans and called on the military to end its operations in the Bara area where the shooting occurred. One sign written in Urdu read: "We are also Pakistanis. Don't kill us."
Shabir Ahmed, a soldier from the paramilitary Frontier Constabulary, said his four brothers and father were present at their home when uniformed gunmen stormed his house, opened fire and killed them.
"I want to know who killed my brothers and father and why," he said.
There have been attacks in the past where militants have disguised themselves in military uniforms, although such incidents are not common.
An official with the Frontier Constabulary, which operates in the area, said the villagers had been killed by militants. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Human rights groups have accused the Pakistani military of widespread human rights abuses in their counter-insurgency campaign in the tribal areas.
In a December report, Amnesty International accused the Pakistani military of regularly holding people without charges and torturing or otherwise mistreating them in custody. The London-based group said in the report that some detainees do not survive and are returned to their families dead, or their corpses are dumped in remote areas.
The Pakistani military rejected Amnesty's allegations, calling the report "a pack of lies."
The Amnesty report also criticized the Taliban for a range of rights abuses, including the killing of captured soldiers and innocent civilians. The militants have carried out scores of attacks around the country that have killed thousands of people.
The bodies of the villagers killed in the Peshawar raid were displayed wrapped in blankets and laid out on the street outside the governor's house.
The relatives of dozens of Shiite Muslims killed in a bomb attack last week in the southwestern city of Quetta also protested by displaying the bodies of the dead in the street. They refused to bury them for four days until the government met their demand to dissolve the government of surrounding Baluchistan province.
Meanwhile, the cleric leading the protest in Islamabad, Tahir-ul-Qadri, addressed his supporters in a marathon four-hour speech Wednesday. He again called for the removal of the government and pilloried the country's politicians as corrupt thieves. He said they were more interested in lining their pockets than dealing with pressing problems like severe energy and gas shortages.
"The country is like a goat for them that they are sharing and eating," said Qadri, sitting in a bulletproof container as he faced thousands of protesters packed into the main avenue running through Islamabad.
The crowd was a bit smaller than the previous two days but still contained at least 20,000 people, said an Islamabad police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. Many waved green and white Pakistani flags and cheered as Qadri spoke.
The 61-year-old cleric returned late last year after years in Canada and emerged as a significant figure in the political scene almost overnight. His rise has sparked allegations that he is working on behalf of the country's powerful army to delay parliamentary elections expected in the spring in favor of a military-backed caretaker government — claims denied by Qadri.
The risk of political instability in Pakistan increased on Tuesday when the Supreme Court ordered the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf for alleged corruption while he was the minister of water and power. The premier has denied the accusations.
The timing of the court's order and Qadri's rally sparked accusations that the judges and the generals were both working to destabilize the government ahead of elections.
The cleric asked his supporters to pledge Wednesday that they would continue their protest until the dissolution of the government and the implementation of electoral reforms that he claims will make the system more democratic. He said the same corrupt politicians would win elections without reform.
"No one will be able to stop these mad elephants coming back to the parliament," said Qadri.
The government is strongly opposed to Qadri's rally, and political leaders have called his demands unconstitutional. However, it's unclear what the government will do if the cleric and his supporters remain camped out in the city.
Pakistani officials are loathe to use force because of the women and children in the crowd and only consider it as their last option, said an intelligence official, also speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Shahzad reported from Islamabad. Associated Press writer Munir Ahmed contributed to this report from Islamabad.