Ousted Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan told thousands of supporters Thursday that if the government failed to announce snap elections in six days, he will return to Islamabad to stage a sit-in protest with hundreds of thousands of people.
Khan led a massive convoy of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party into the capital in early morning, where he delivered the ultimatum before peacefully disbanding the protest march.
The cricketer-turned-politician denounced Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s government for a massive police crackdown on his supporters before and during the protest march since it set off Wednesday morning from the northwestern city of Swabi, about 100 kilometers from the capital.
Khan, 69, claimed the police action had killed five of his party workers while many more were wounded.
“I am giving you six days. You announce elections in six days and dissolve the Parliament. I will return to Islamabad with my entire nation if you don’t do that,” he warned from atop a truck after he and his convoy reached Islamabad just before dawn.
The former prime minister had originally planned to stage a sit-in protest in the capital and stay put until the government announced a date for snap elections.
“I had decided that I will sit here until the government dissolves assemblies and announces elections, but of what I have seen in the past 24 hours, (the government) are taking the nation toward anarchy,” he said.
Khan was ousted following a parliamentary no-confidence vote last month, toppling his nearly four-year coalition government headed by his PTI party. Sharif replaced him and formed a new multiparty unity government.
Khan has repeatedly alleged that the United States conspired with his political opponents to topple him and denounced the Sharif administration as an “imported government.” Khan has not offered evidence to substantiate his claims.
Washington has from the outset rejected Khan’s allegations as untrue. Sharif has also dismissed the so-called foreign conspiracy claims as a “pack of lies.”
Authorities had blocked entry routes into Islamabad with scores of shipping containers and deployed thousands of police as well as paramilitary forces to keep the rally from the city. The government also ordered the deployment of troops at key installations, including the Parliament, the Supreme Court and the diplomatic enclave housing foreign embassies.
The top court ordered the government Wednesday night to remove all the blockades and to arrange an open space for Khan’s supporters to hold their rally in line with their democratic rights and disperse peacefully.
The protesters defied the judicial orders, however, and reached the heart of the capital and police used heavy tear gas and batons for several hours to try to disperse the crowd before Khan’s convoy entered the city and joined them, forcing police to cease their operation.
Officials said protesters had set fire to trees, vehicles, shops, and a bus station. Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb said at least 18 police and paramilitary troops were wounded in clashes with protesters.
Clashes between PTI supporters and police had also taken place elsewhere in Pakistan, including in central Punjab province and the largest southern port city, Karachi, since Khan’s convoy began its march on Wednesday.
Television footage showed police clashing with Khan’s supporters, beating them, and, in some areas, breaking their vehicles’ windshields and bundling them into police vans.
Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah confirmed at a news conference in Islamabad Wednesday that police had raided nearly 4,500 PTI homes, offices and protest rallies across the country, arresting around 1,700 people.
The political crisis has deepened Pakistan’s economic woes. The government was in weeklong talks with the International Monetary for Fund, which ended Wednesday, for the resumption of a $6 billion bailout package but failed to secure a deal, adding to the pressure on beleaguered Sharif.
In a statement, the IMF said its team had held “highly constructive” discussions with Pakistani authorities, aimed at reaching an agreement on policies and reforms.
“The team emphasized the urgency of concrete policy actions, including in the context of removing fuel and energy subsidies and the FY2023 budget, to achieve program objectives,” the statement said. Experts said the removal of subsidies would increase inflation and could fuel public anger.