AFP - Violence flared Friday as police and protesters clashed during a mass protest strike that closed businesses across Pakistan over a bid to end the death penalty for blasphemy.
Police said protesters near the home of unpopular President Asif Ali Zardari in the financial hub of Karachi pelted stones as they shouted slogans including "We'll sacrifice our lives -- we'll save the sanctity of the Prophet".
Teargas shells were fired to disperse them, while normally busy town centres turned quiet across the Muslim country, AFP reporters said, following a move to amend a law which permits death sentences for those found to have blasphemed.
Conservative religious groups called for a national strike in a bid to block any change after thousands of Islamists rallied in major cities last week in support of the law, which rights campaigners say encourages Islamist extremism.
The strike went ahead despite a categorical announcement by deputy information minister Samsam Bokhari on Thursday that the government had no intention of amending the controversial law.
AFP reporters said markets were closed on Friday and roads deserted in the otherwise bustling cities of Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, Islamabad and its neighbouring garrison town of Rawalpindi.
Demonstrators said their goal was to defend the honour of the Prophet Mohammed.
"We will start a civil disobedience movement if the government makes any amendment to the law," the chairman of influential Muslim grouping the Sunni Ittehad Council, Sahebzada Fazal Karim, told AFP.
Former Information Minister Sherry Rehman, from the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP), sparked fury when he lodged a private member's bill seeking to abolish the death penalty for blasphemy.
The country had provoked international condemnation after a death sentence was handed to a Christian woman found guilty of defaming the Prophet Mohammed.
Pope Benedict XVI has called for the release of mother-of-five Asia Bibi, who is now in jail pending an appeal.
Samsam Bokhari disassociated the government from the bill to amend the law, saying it was not policy.
"As far as the party is concerned, the law is not being amended, nor does the government intend to bring any change in it," he said.
Protest rallies were held across Pakistan, and in Karachi police fired around a dozen teargas shells to disperse about 100 demonstrators who wanted to walk past Zardari's house.
Police official Naseer Tanoli told AFP the protesters were going to join the main rally in the town but had tried to pass the President's home en route.
"We asked them to use a different route we had assigned for it. But they refused and pelted stones on the police, which forced us to use teargas," Tanoli said, adding that the demonstrators had dispersed.
Around 5,000 people rallied in the city, carrying placards and banners inscribed with anti-government and anti-US slogans with some chanting "Death to America".
Shopping centres, colleges and universities were closed, and examinations scheduled for Friday in Karachi were postponed.
The president of Karachi's local transport association, Irshad Bokhari, told AFP that public transport would remain off the road as part of the strike.
Chairman of the All Karachi Traders Unity Atiq Mir said: "All markets and business centres are closed because the protection of Prophet Mohammed's honour is supreme to us." Shops and business centres were also shut in the capital Islamabad and the northwestern city of Peshawar.
More than 2,500 activists from different religious parties held three protest rallies in Multan city in central Punjab province, where a shutter-down strike was observed and markets and bazaars remained closed, an AFP reporter said.
Only around three percent of Pakistan's population of 167 million are thought to be non-Muslim, and minorities complain of discrimination. Pakistan has yet to execute anyone for blasphemy. Most of those given the death penalty have their sentences overturned or commuted on appeal through the courts.