ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistani police have fired tear gas and scuffled with stone-throwing supporters of ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan ahead of planned marches toward central Islamabad. The former prime minister had called his supporters to gather outside Parliament in an attempt to overthrow the government and to force elections.
The marches have raised fears of major violence between supporters of Khan — now Pakistan’s top opposition leader — and security forces. The government of Khan’s successor, Shahbaz Sharif, has banned the rally and warned Khan he could face arrest if he went ahead with the demonstrations.
The country’s Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that Khan’s rally could go ahead — but only at a specifically allocated public grounds and on condition the demonstrators disperse after an address by the former prime minister. The court also asked Khan’s lawyer, Babar Awan, to ensure that the rally remains peaceful.
Khan persisted and urged supporters to go toward the square next to Parliament. Khan hoped that the rally would turn into a sit in there, until the government is forced out. To protect important buildings such as the Parliament in Islamabad and the offices of the prime minister and president, the government called troops. Following clashes with police officers, the government took these measures.
Riot police used tear gas to disperse hundreds of protestors who were trying to cross a blocked bridge in Lahore on Wednesday, to get onto buses bound for Islamabad. Dozens of Khan’s followers also briefly clashed with police in Islamabad, where the demonstrators set fire to bushes lining a main boulevard, sending smoke and flames rising into the sky.
Altercations also occurred elsewhere.
At most, a dozen protestors and several officers were hurt. Ahead of Wednesday’s marches, authorities used dozens of shipping containers and trucks to block off major roads into Islamabad.
The Parliament building, Islamabad. On May 26, 2022.
Farooq Naeem—AFP/Getty Images
Khan was an ex-cricket star who turned Islamist politician. His tenure as prime minister lasted more than three and a half years. Then, last month, Khan was removed by the no confidence vote. Khan has participated in rallies across the country with many thousands of people since.
Khan claimed that Khan was removed from office due to an organized plot by the U.S. and colusion with Sharif. Sharif’s government has pledged a firm response in the event Khan violates this ban. Washington has denied any role in Pakistan’s internal politics.
Learn more Pakistan’s Leader Imran Khan Faces a No-Confidence Vote. It is possible that the result could be felt further afield
Despite the ban, Khan is insisting his rally will be massive and peaceful — and continue until the government agrees to hold fresh elections this year, not in 2023 as scheduled. Organizers had planned for crowds to travel by car and bus to Islamabad’s city limits, then march on foot from there.
Khan himself flew by helicopter from Islamabad to reach a highway about 100 km (62 mi) north of Islamabad. There, he condemned police brutality and encouraged supporters to attend the rally.
“My message for the nation: Everyone must break out of the grip of fear to achieve freedom,” he wrote on Twitter, before starting out by vehicle. He still has to clear a number of roadblocks, which would need heavy machinery.
Khan urged supporters to clear the containers containing earth and bypass all blockades so that they could enter Islamabad. Thousands of Khan’s supporters along with leaders of his Tehreek-e-Insaf party massed in Peshawar, the capital of northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province where his party rules.
Protests in Islamabad gather steam
Rana Sanaullah (Interior Minister) said the government launched a crackdown on Khan supporters and had more than 1,700 of them arrested. Minister Rana Sanaullah praised his countrymen’s refusal to host a large rally, and he apologized for any inconvenience caused by the blockades.
“Imran Khan had claimed that he would gather 2 million people here in Islamabad today, but he is marching toward Islamabad along with only 6,000 or 7,000 demonstrators,” Sanaullah told a news conference Wednesday. “We are fully prepared to handle him.”
Additional police officers and paramilitary soldiers have been deployed on the highways in Islamabad and elsewhere in Pakistan. Tractor trailers are parked in both directions in many areas.
After a Tuesday raid on the Lahore home of a prominent Khan supporter, a policeman was shot to death.
A separate development occurred Wednesday. Days-long discussions between Islamabad, the International Monetary Fund and Pakistan ended in Qatar. The talks did not result in Pakistan getting a renewed $6 billion bailout package.
Following the discussions, IMF requested Pakistan to eliminate fuel subsidies and other energy subsidies. The subsidies were approved by Khan’s government in February, forcing the IMF at the time to withhold a crucial tranche of about $1 billion.
Read More From Time