Pakistani Cartoon Protests Largest Yet

Peshawar, Pakistan - Gunfire and rioting erupted Wednesday as more than 70,000 people joined Pakistan's biggest protest yet against Prophet Muhammad cartoons, burning movie theaters, a KFC restaurant and a South Korean-run bus station. Three people died and dozens were injured in two cities, police and witnesses said.

The massive crowd went on a rampage in the northwestern city of Peshawar, torching businesses and fighting police, who struck back with tear gas and batons. It was the third straight day of violent demonstrations in the Islamic nation.

The rioters ransacked the offices of the Norwegian mobile phone company Telenor, three cinemas and offices of Mobilink — the main mobile phone operator in the country, witnesses said. They also burned a bus terminal operated by South Korea's Sammi Corp. Flames were shooting out of some of the buses, private TV station Geo reported.

"The European newspapers have abused our religion," said Shaukat Khan, 22 and jobless, his eyes streaming from police tear gas near the burning bus stand. "We are expressing our anger. Usually protesters are peaceful but some miscreants do bad things and other people join them."

Paramilitary forces were deployed, and the government announced that schools and colleges would be closed in northwestern Pakistan for one week to protect students from violence. Authorities also announced a ban on rallies in eastern Pakistan for an indefinite period.

Demonstrations around Asia and the Middle East over the cartoons — which first appeared in a Danish newspaper in September and have been reprinted by other newspapers, mostly in the West — have subsided in recent days, including in

Afghanistan, where 11 people died in riots last week.

But the protests have gathered momentum in Pakistan this week. Islamic groups and traders' associations have organized shutdowns and street rallies that have descended into violence.

Intelligence officials say members of outlawed Islamic militant groups have joined the protests, and may be inciting violence to undermine the pro-Western government of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

In Peshawar, a bullet fired by a demonstrator hit an 8-year old boy in the face, killing him, said Shahid Khan, a police officer. A 25-year-old man died when he was hit by an electric cable that was snapped by gunfire from protesters, said the man's cousin, Jehangir Khan. At least 45 others were being treated for injuries at two state-run hospitals.

In Lahore, where riots flared for a second straight day, a 30-year-old man was shot dead in a clash with police, said Daniyal Ahmed, a doctor at the Jinnah Hospital where the man died.

About 1,500 students surprised police by staging an unannounced rally Wednesday outside Punjab University in the eastern city, beating up a police officer and disrupting traffic, said Chaudhry Shafqat, a senior police official.

"It all happened suddenly, and we are trying to control the situation," he said.

Police have come under fire for failing to stop Tuesday's unrest in Lahore, where hundreds of vehicles and several Western businesses were burned or ransacked, including a KFC, a McDonald's, Citibank and a Telenor office. The Punjab provincial assembly building was also set on fire.

Police said 125 people had been detained.

In Islamabad, police arrested 142 students after they forced their way into a heavily guarded enclave housing foreign embassies and damaged property on Tuesday, police spokesman Naeem Iqbal said.

In Peshawar, which also saw riots on Monday, fresh violence kicked off Wednesday morning after about 6,000 protesters gathered at a busy traffic intersection, chanting "Death to Denmark!" and "Hang those who drew the insulting cartoons!" Others burned Danish flags and effigies of the Danish prime minister.

Police said the crowed swelled to over 70,000 in different groups across the city, while most shops, public transport and other businesses were closed — following a call by three traders' and transport operators' associations who organized the protest.

A senior police official said they were investigating whether the rioting was planned. He said the main spark for the violent unrest appeared to be the events in Lahore on Tuesday, which encouraged youths to do the same in Peshawar.

"We can't say at the moment it was a planned thing. We are investigating," said the official, who requested anonymity as he wasn't authorized to comment to media.

Police also battled protesters in the northwestern town of Tank, where 2,000 people rallied and set fire to 30 shops selling CDs, DVDs and videos, said police officer Attiq Wazir. One policeman was reportedly injured when a protester opened fire to resist arrest.

Suspected militants have previously warned music shops in the town to close — saying music and videos are against Islam.

Elsewhere in Asia, hundreds of protesters from the small Muslim minority ripped apart and burned Danish flags in a rally at the Danish honorary consulate in Manila, the Philippines capital.

In Muslim-majority Malaysia, the government ordered Guang Ming, the country's third largest Chinese-language newspaper, to halt publication of its evening edition for two weeks as punishment for printing a photograph in which the cartoons were visible.

And in the world's most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia's importers association said it was boycotting Danish goods to protest the publication of the cartoons in Denmark.

Many Muslims regard any depiction of the prophet as blasphemous. Newspapers publishing the pictures, however, have asserted their news value or the right to freedom of the press.