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8 people killed as protesters backing anti-government cleric fight police in Pakistan

Pakistani-Canadian Tahir-ul-Qadri waves to his supporters as he leaves the Supreme Court in Islamabad, Pakistan in a Feb. 12, 2013 photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, B.K. Bangash

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Pakistani-Canadian Tahir-ul-Qadri waves to his supporters as he leaves the Supreme Court in Islamabad, Pakistan in a Feb. 12, 2013 photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, B.K. Bangash

LAHORE, Pakistan - Police clashed Tuesday with followers of an anti-Taliban cleric critical of Pakistan's government in the eastern city of Lahore, violence that killed eight people, officials said.

The cleric, Tahir-ul-Qadri, is based in Canada but has a network of mosques and religious centres across Pakistan. Qadri led a rally of tens of thousands of his supporters that shut down the capital last year, calling for a delay in elections to prevent electoral fraud. His plan to return to Pakistan on June 23 and rally against the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has once again put him in the limelight.

Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif said the clashes killed eight people. The head of Jinnah Hospital, Dr. Abdur Raof, said the hospital received 80 wounded.

The clashes started when authorities came to Qadri's house and seminary complex to remove security barriers that they said had turned the entire vicinity into a no-go area.

"The police were heavily fired upon from inside the ... centre," said Gujjar, speaking on Pakistani television. Gujjar said that gunfire killed the protesters, not police.

A spokesman for Qadri, Shahid Mursaleem, said the police first shot tear gas to disperse the protesters, then opened fire on them. Mursaleem said police arrested 40 to 50 of the cleric's followers. He said the government is worried about Qadri's return and is trying to quiet him.

Qadri on Twitter accused the government of trying to divert attention away from the army operations in North Waziristan, which Qadri has supported. Pakistan launched a major offensive Sunday against militants there after Sharif's push for peace talks failed to produce results.

Qadri struck a chord with people last year by attacking the state's inability to solve problems such as electricity and unemployment. But his demand that the government be dissolved and replaced by a military-backed caretaker administration raised concerns that he was being used by the nation's powerful army to delay parliamentary elections. Qadri denied having any connection to the army.

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Associated Press writer Rebecca Santana in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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