All roads leading to Pakistan’s capital Islamabad were blocked on Wednesday ahead of a rally organized by ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan, with police deploying tear gas to disperse supporters in a major city.
Since being ousted from power in a no-confidence vote last month, the international cricketer-turned-politician has pressured the country’s fragile new coalition government by staging mass rallies demanding new elections.
In a showdown with his rivals, Khan plans on Wednesday to drive tens of thousands of people from his power base in the northwestern city of Peshawar to the capital, where supporters from other cities also hope to congregate. .
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“We will reach Islamabad at all costs. We will face all obstructions (…) and follow the orders of our leader,” trader and protester Irfan Ahmad, 34, told AFP in Peshawar.
The coalition government under Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif vowed to stop Khan supporters from pouring into the city, calling the rally an attempt to “divide the nation and promote chaos”.
Islamabad police released a traffic map on Wednesday showing a full blockade of the capital, backed by a heavy security presence.
Entry and exit points on major highways to Islamabad have been blocked by police in major towns closest to Peshawar, Lahore and Multan.
In Lahore, police deployed tear gas against Khan supporters who tried to clear roadblocks and march into Islamabad in convoys.
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“No one should be allowed to besiege the capital and dictate terms,” Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah said on Tuesday.
Schools in Islamabad and neighboring Rawalpindi have been closed and all exams cancelled, while a state of emergency has been declared in all hospitals, with staff put on alert.
“We have already seen the capital blocked but this is something unprecedented,” Allah Ditta, 52, an employee of a private school in Islamabad, told AFP.
Salon worker Sawera Masih complained that the large-scale disruptions were hitting daily workers like her the hardest.
“Whoever is in power makes no difference to us, but not winning even a single day affects me and my family,” the 23-year-old said.
On Tuesday, Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) accused police of arresting and detaining hundreds of his supporters in overnight raids.
Police sources in Lahore, who requested anonymity, told AFP that more than 200 supporters were detained for disturbing public order.
The government and police said protesters planned to join the march with weapons.
A policeman was shot dead in the raids, Punjab Chief Minister Hamza Shahbaz Sharif said.
But a defiant Khan, who claims he was driven out by a US-led foreign plot, told reporters in Peshawar he would lead the biggest march in Pakistan’s history.
“I don’t see this as politics but as jihad,” Khan said, referring to a term used by Muslims to describe a struggle.
In 2018, Khan was elected by an electorate weary of the dynastic politics of the country’s two main parties.
The former popular sports star – who enjoyed the backing of the country’s mighty military – had promised to sweep away decades of entrenched corruption and cronyism, but is believed to have fallen out with Pakistani generals.
He was brought down in part by his failure to address the country’s dire economic situation, including its crippling debt, dwindling foreign exchange reserves and soaring inflation.
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