Mob torches factory in Pakistan following blasphemy accusation

Lahore (Pakistan) (AFP) - An angry mob in Pakistan's Punjab province torched a factory after one of its employees was accused of committing blasphemy, police officials said on Saturday.

Hundreds of people surrounded a chipboard factory in Jhelum city on Friday night and set it ablaze after reports surfaced that an employee had allegedly desecrated the Koran.

"The incident took place after we arrested the head of security at the factory, Qamar Ahmed Tahir, following complaints that he ordered the burning of Korans," Adnan Malik, a senior police official in the area, told AFP.

On Saturday, another mob gathered in the town of Kala Gujran near Jhelum and torched the homes of several Ahmadi families and an Ahmadi mosque.

Troops have been sent to patrol the area and bring the situation under control.

According to police, Tahir belongs to the Ahmadi sect, a religious group who have been declared non-Muslims by the Pakistani government due to their "heretical beliefs". Ahmadis are frequently victims of discrimination and violent assaults.

Blasphemy is a hugely sensitive issue in Pakistan, an Islamic republic of some 200 million, where even unproven allegations frequently stir mob violence and lynchings.

Critics including European governments say the country's blasphemy laws are often misused to settle personal scores.

According to police, another employee at the factory had reported that Tahir was overseeing the burning of Korans in the facility's boiler and intervened to stop the act.

"We registered a blasphemy case against Tahir, who is Ahmadi by faith, and arrested him after confiscating the burnt material, which also included copies of the Koran," police official Malik said.

Following the arrest, a mob reportedly descended on the factory, setting it alight.

A statement from the Ahmadi community termed the incident "a monstrous plan, an attempt to burn Ahmadis alive".

"Announcements were made on loudspeakers in mosques that the Holy Quran had been desecrated in the Ahmadis' chipboard factory.

A violent mob formed because of these provocative announcements, and surrounded the factory, threw stones, caused damage and then set the factory on fire," said the statement, adding that law enforcement personnel rescued people trapped in the factory, seventy per cent of which was destroyed in the fire.

A spokesman for the Ahmadi community, Saleem Ud Din, told AFP that three of their members were arrested after the incident.

District police chief Mujahid Afsar said authorities were trying to negotiate between the communities, but Din said that the atmosphere was still violent.

Eleven Ahmadis were murdered for their faith in 2014 and authorities have failed to apprehend any of the killers, highlighting growing intolerance toward the sect.