ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s former prime minister Imran Khan and his convoy of vehicles and supporters entered the federal capital on Wednesday night to hold an anti-government rally after a long day of political drama that included clashes between demonstrators and police, and the arrests of hundreds of Khan supporters across the country.
Khan’s caravan was close to Islamabad when he called on his supporters to reach the D-Chowk protest spot near the country’s parliament building and other sensitive government installations, saying he would stay there until the assemblies were dissolved and an election date was announced.
Khan was removed from office in a vote of no-confidence last month after losing his majority in parliament. Subsequently, he held several public rallies across the country saying his ouster was part of a Washington-backed foreign conspiracy while refusing to recognize the new government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif. The US has denied the allegations.
“Public welcome on entering Islamabad,” Khan’s close aide Shahbaz Gill said in a Twitter post while sharing a video clip of fireworks.
Khan started his anti-government march from Peshawar on Wednesday morning while the government blocked all roads leading to the federal capital and was rounding up workers and supporters of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party.
The Supreme Court of Pakistan ordered the government to designate a ground near the H-9 sector in Islamabad for the PTI protest rally while hearing a petition for the removal of road blocks in the city. It also ordered authorities not to arrest political workers and hold consultations with a PTI committee to discuss the modalities of their protest in the federal capital.
Videos shot by an Arab News reporter on Wednesday evening showed thousands of Khan supporters walking down the capital’s Blue Area business zone toward D-Chowk while police fired tear gas at, and baton charged, them. Supporters had lit fires all the way down the road to D-Chowk in an apparent bid to neutralize the effects of the tear gas but Islamabad police said on Twitter they had set fire to trees and vehicles.
“Police called the fire brigade. Some places were set on fire while the protesters again set the trees on the Express Chowk,” police said. “Security in the Red Zone has been beefed up,” police added, referring to an area in Islamabad where government, judiciary and legislature buildings are located.
Video clips on social media platforms also showed a burning metro station in the city surrounded by hundreds of PTI supporters.
According to the head of the government’s negotiating team, Ayaz Sadiq, talks could not be held with members of Khan’s political party since they did not show up at the designated place at the stipulated time.
“If we do not implement the directives of the Supreme Court, it will be seen as contempt be of court,” he said. “Now that we have implemented the order, you can see what is happening.”
He said the top court should take action against what was happening in the city.
“Despite the Supreme Court’s directives, Imran Khan has been asking his supporters to reach D-Chowk,” he said. “In light of the apex court’s ruling, the government removed containers and opened the roads and because of that these people have reached D-Chowk and Red Zone.”
Khan had said earlier in the day there was no possibility of a deal with the government on calling off or limiting the rally.
“We are moving toward Islamabad & no question of any deal. We will remain in Islamabad till announcement of dates for dissolution of assemblies & elections are given.”
“God willing we have to reach D-Chowk Islamabad, no hurdle can stop us,” Khan said in an address to supporters in Swabi en route Islamabad.
CLASHES, ROAD BLOCKS, ARRESTS
Videos circulating on social media and broadcast on local TV channels early in the day showed police clashing with protesters in Lahore and Islamabad, with Punjab police using tear gas on demonstrators in Lahore and baton charging them in the capital.
PTI supporters and police also clashed in Gujranwala when the latter tried to stop protesters with barricades but the marchers forced their way through the obstructions.
According to PTI’s Gujranwala General Secretary Tariq Gujjar, 150 people from the caravan had been taken into custody.
Clashes were reported in Karachi as well in which at least two video journalists were injured.
All major roads linking the Punjab province with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa from where Khan started his march were blocked with barricades. Police and district officials blocked the GT Road highway with shipping containers over the Attock Khurd Bridge which marks the border between Punjab and KP. Media reported intense tear gas shelling on the bridge by anti-riot police in the late afternoon on Wednesday.
The motorway M1 connecting the two provinces was also blocked off and other motorways traversing Punjab, including M2, were blocked at several places.
Section 144, which bans large public gatherings, was imposed on Tuesday in Lahore, the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad and Karachi, as well as other major cities in the country, while the Punjab government has called in the paramilitary Rangers to keep law and order.
Former Education Minister Shafqat Mahmood from Khan’s PTI said police had raided his house in the early morning hours of Wednesday.
“Police barged into my house without a warrant while I was not there. Do they really think these tactics would intimidate us?”
Meanwhile, PTI Senator Ejaz Chaudhary was arrested after the Punjab government said weapons were recovered from the vehicles of PTI’s Lahore office bearers.
An admin for Chaudhry’s account tweeted:
A number of other PTI office bearers were also arrested.