Hard-line Islamic leaders Sunday rallied at least 15,000 people against an American official arrested in the shooting deaths of two Pakistanis and warned the government not to cave in to U.S. pressure to release him.
The protest in this eastern city, where the shootings took place, came as the U.S. Embassy once again insisted that the American has diplomatic immunity and was being detained illegally by Pakistan. But Pakistan has refused to budge, saying the matter must be decided by the courts.
The dispute has revealed the fragility of a relationship that Washington believes is crucial for success in Afghanistan and against the al-Qaida terrorist network. Large protests by hard-line Islamic groups, which have significant influence in Pakistan, could make it even more difficult for the government to free the American.
"We warn the government and administration that if they help the arrested American illegally, then this crowd will surround the U.S. Embassy and presidential palace in Islamabad," Hafiz Hussain Ahmed, a senior official in the Jamiat Ulema Islam party, said during Sunday's rally.
The United States has said the American, who has not been named, acted in self-defense when he shot two armed men who approached his car in Lahore on Thursday.
But many questions have been left unanswered, including exactly what the American's job was at the U.S. Embassy and why he was carrying a gun. The lack of clarity has fueled media speculation he may have been a CIA agent or security contractor, as well as questions about whether he qualified for diplomatic immunity.
The embassy attempted to provide a little more clarity in a news release Sunday titled "Facts About Diplomatic Immunity." It said the man is a member of the embassy's "technical and administrative staff" and thus enjoyed the same immunity that all diplomats have under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.
But legal arguments are unlikely to sway ordinary Pakistanis, many of whom dislike the United States and distrust their government in its dealings with Washington. This animosity is especially pronounced among hard-line Islamic groups, which oppose the war in Afghanistan and object to Pakistan's alliance with America in fighting the Taliban and al-Qaida.
Sunday's demonstration was organized by Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which is widely believed to be a front for the militant group that attacked the Indian city of Mumbai in 2008, killing 166 people. The rally was originally called to protest changes to Pakistani laws that mandate the death penalty for insulting Islam. But many of the speakers used the opportunity to stoke anger over the recent shootings.
Lahore Police Chief Aslam Tareen said that there were 15,000 to 20,000 people at the rally in the center of the city.
The American was taken into custody soon after the shooting and appeared in court Friday for an initial hearing. U.S. officials were granted access to him only late the same day, soon after prosecutors said they would pursue possible murder charges against him.