Unrest in Pakistani capital as Khan supporters march

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistani police fired tear gas and clashed with stone-throwing supporters of ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan ahead of planned marches in central Islamabad. The provocative former prime minister called on his supporters to rally outside parliament to bring down the government and force a snap election.

The marches raised fears of major violence between supporters of Khan – now Pakistan’s opposition leader – and security forces. The government of Khan’s successor, Shahbaz Sharif, banned the rally and warned Khan that he could be arrested if he continued the protests.

The country’s Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that Khan’s rally could take place – but only on specifically allocated public land and on the condition that protesters disperse after a speech by the former prime minister. The court also asked Khan’s lawyer, Babar Awan, to ensure the rally remained peaceful.

However, Khan persisted, urging supporters to head to the square near Parliament for the rally which he said would turn into a sit-in until the government resigned. The government has called in troops to guard important buildings, including parliament and the offices of the president and prime minister in Islamabad. These measures come after clashes between demonstrators and police.

Riot police fired tear gas and repelled hundreds of rock-throwing protesters as they attempted to cross a blocked bridge near the city of Lahore on Wednesday to board buses bound for the capital, Islamabad . Dozens of Khan supporters also briefly clashed with police in Islamabad, where protesters set fire to bushes lining a main boulevard, sending smoke and flames rising into the sky.

Clashes were also reported elsewhere, including in the port city of Karachi, where protesters set fire to a police vehicle.

At least a dozen protesters and several police officers were injured. Ahead of Wednesday’s marches, authorities used dozens of containers and trucks to block major roads to Islamabad.

Supporters of ousted Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan gather outside the parliament building in Islamabad on May 26, 2022.

Farooq Naeem—AFP/Getty Images

Khan, a former cricket star turned Islamist politician, served as prime minister for more than three and a half years until last month when he was ousted by a vote of no confidence in parliament. Since then, he has organized rallies with thousands of people across the country.

Khan says his removal is the result of a US-organized plot and collusion with Sharif, whose government has promised a tough response if Khan violates the ban. Washington has denied any role in Pakistan’s domestic politics.

Read more: Pakistani leader Imran Khan is facing a vote of no confidence. The result could be felt much further

Despite the ban, Khan insists his rally will be massive and peaceful – and will continue until the government agrees to hold new elections this year, not in 2023 as planned. Organizers had planned for crowds to travel by car and bus to the city limits of Islamabad and then walk on foot from there.

Khan himself flew by helicopter to a highway about 100 kilometers (62 miles) northwest of Islamabad, where he condemned the police crackdown and urged supporters to join the rally.

“My message for the nation: everyone must come out of the grip of fear to achieve freedom,” he wrote on Twitter, before leaving in the vehicle. His convoy still faces a series of roadblocks in front of which heavy machinery would have to be removed.

Khan called on his followers to remove containers filled with soil and circumvent any blockade in order to enter Islamabad. Thousands of Khan’s supporters as well as leaders of his Tehreek-e-Insaf party have massed in Peshawar, the capital of the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where his party rules.

Islamabad protests escalate

The government has launched a crackdown and arrested more than 1,700 Khan supporters, according to Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah. The minister congratulated his compatriots for rejecting a mass gathering and apologized to citizens for any inconvenience caused by the blockages.

“Imran Khan had claimed that he would gather 2 million people here in Islamabad today, but he is marching towards Islamabad with only 6,000 or 7,000 protesters,” Sanaullah said at a press conference on Wednesday. “We are fully prepared to handle it.”

Authorities have deployed additional police and paramilitary troops on highways and in Islamabad, with tractor-trailers parked on both lanes of traffic in several areas.

The measures were announced after a policeman was killed in a raid on the home of a prominent Khan supporter in Lahore on Tuesday.

In a separate development on Wednesday, days-long talks between Islamabad and the International Monetary Fund concluded in Qatar without Pakistan securing the relaunch of a $6 billion bailout from the global lender.

After the talks, the IMF urged Pakistan to remove fuel and power subsidies. The grants were approved by Khan’s government in February, forcing the IMF at the time to withhold a crucial tranche of about $1 billion.

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