Huge anti-Charlie Hebdo rally in Chechnya as global protests rumble on

19th January 2015, Comments 0 comments

The backlash over Charlie Hebdo rumbled on Monday after days of bloodshed in Niger, with a huge rally in Chechnya against the weekly's cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, Afghan protesters burning the French flag and Gazans levelling threats against France.

Hundreds of thousands of people flooded into the centre of Grozny, the capital of Russia's Muslim North Caucasus region of Chechnya, for a mammoth state-sponsored demonstration against caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed.

An AFP journalist at the event put the attendance figure at several hundred thousand, while authorities in the tightly controlled region said more than one million people took part in the rally.

"This is a protest against those who support the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed," Ramzan Kadyrov, who has ruled Chechnya with an iron fist since being installed by President Vladimir Putin a decade ago, told the demonstrators.

Kadyrov has turned Chechnya, where tens of thousands of civilians were killed in two Kremlin wars to crush a separatist movement, into a showcase for loyalty to Putin.

The strongman attacked the French government for backing Charlie Hebdo magazine's right to run a Mohammed cartoon on its front cover a week after two Islamist gunmen -- saying they were avenging the publication over previous Mohammed caricatures -- massacred 12 people at its office in Paris.

"We say firmly that we will never allow anyone to go unpunished for insulting the name of the prophet and our religion," Kadyrov said.

Demonstrators chanted "Allahu Akbar" (God Is Greatest) and released balloons into the sky at the highly choreographed event, as speakers harangued against Western governments' argument that printing caricatures of Islam's prophet is a matter of free speech.

Authorities in Chechnya, which has a total population of around 1.25 million, said they had appealed for believers to come from all around the North Caucasus region.

Live footage on Russian state television showed demonstrators filling the main square in Grozny, which has a population of only around 250,000.

Human rights activists say crowds at pro-Kremlin rallies are often boosted by large numbers of students and workers ordered to attend by state-run institutions.

Although Russia's leadership extended its condolences to France, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov participated in a unity march held in Paris following the attacks, pro-Kremlin commentators and Muslims accused the cartoonists of provoking the attack.

The media watchdog in Russia -- which is at loggerheads with the West over the crisis in Ukraine -- on Friday warned publications that printing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed was against the country's laws and ethical norms.

- Flags burned, France threatened -

Elsewhere around the world, hundreds of people in Afghanistan and Pakistan demonstrated against Charlie Hebdo, burning French flags and calling for the government to cut diplomatic relations with France.

Demonstrators in the eastern Afghanistan city of Jalalabad chanted anti-France slogans and vowed to defend Islam.

"I call on the Afghan government and other Islamic countries to cut off their diplomatic ties with France," 25-year-old protester Matiullah Ahmadzai told AFP.

"We want the French embassy in Kabul closed. France should apologise to Muslim countries," he said.

In neighbouring Pakistan, five protests were held in the northwestern city of Peshawar and one in the southern port city of Karachi.

In Gaza, around 200 radical Islamists -- brandishing black jihadi banners -- threatened attacks against France.

"French, leave Gaza or we will slaughter you," the crowd chanted in front of the French cultural centre.

As the latest wave of protests against the cartoons rolled on, authorities in Niger were totting up the cost of several days of violent demonstrations.

Forty-five churches were torched over the weekend in the country's capital Niamey during deadly protests, police said Monday.

The protests, which left five people dead and 128 people injured, also saw a Christian school and orphanage set alight, Adily Toro, a spokesman for the national police, told a press conference.

Police made 189 arrests, he said, while demonstrators also pillaged and burned many sites including five hotels and 36 bars.

Similar unrest sparked by the French satirical weekly saw five people killed in the southern Niger city of Zinder, where 45 were wounded.

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© 2015 AFP

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