A Pakistani Muslim protester throws a tear gas shell back towards police as demonstrators attempt to reach the US embassy during a protest against an anti-Islam film in Islamabad. AFP/Aamir Qureshi
Violence erupted on Friday during government-sanctioned protests against the film 'Innocence of Muslims', which has triggered large-scale demonstrations across the Muslim world.
Two policemen were among the 17 people who died in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, while six more were killed in the northwestern city of Peshawar.
Over 200 people were injured, some of them seriously, during protests in Islamabad, Lahore, Peshawar, Karachi and other cities across the country.
Throughout Friday, TV news channels beamed footage of rampaging mobs looting and burning private and public property.
Protesters torched or vandalised five cinema halls in Karachi, including one that was earlier owned by President Asif Ali Zardari's family, three other theatres and the chamber of commerce in Peshawar and countless banks and shops, and looted goods and cash from commercial establishments and ATMs.
The PPP-led government had declared yesterday the 'Youm-e-Ishq-e-Rasool' (Love the Prophet Day) in an effort to blunt efforts by hardline religious and extremist groups to incite violent protests against the anti-Islam film but observers said it had gravely miscalculated.
"The government probably thought it was taking the initiative away from the religious parties but it instead ended up emboldening them," said Omar R Quraishi, editorial pages editor of The Express Tribune, a newspaper based in Karachi, the city which witnessed more death and destruction than other places.
"The protesters must have thought that the government was not going to do anything to them as it had declared a national holiday," Quraishi told PTI.
Quraishi, like many other commentators, believed the government had ceded space on a sensitive issue and allowed radical elements to gain the initiative.
Pakistani dailies highlighted the death and destruction on their front pages.
"Day of reverence or killer rage," read the headline in the influential Dawn newspaper while The Nation headlined its report "Total chaos on Day of Love".
The front page report in the Dawn said: "Friday which was designated by the government to demonstrate love of the Holy Prophet and condemn the anti-Islam video ... was hijacked by our home-grown extremists who turned it into a day of unbridled violence, killings, arson and robbery."
About 25 people have died so far since protests began earlier this week against the anti-Islam film. Apart from the 23 killed yesterday, two had died in Karachi and the country's northwest in recent days.
The government recently blocked YouTube so that people could not access clips from the film.
The Foreign Office yesterday summoned the acting US Ambassador to protest against the film and demanded that the US government take steps to have the video removed from YouTube.
The protesters have repeatedly attempted to target the US embassy in Islamabad and consulates in Lahore, Karachi and Peshawar during protests in the past two days.
The demonstrations in Islamabad have largely focussed on the diplomatic enclave, with hundreds of protesters fighting running battles with riot police while trying to march towards the US embassy.
The government has called in the army to guard the diplomatic enclave and stepped up security across the country as the protests are expected to continue.