December 8, 2022

Pakistan capital blockaded ahead of opposition protest

Ex-prime minister Imran Khan has been rallying his supporters to protest the new government since he was ousted from power last month


Ex-prime minister Imran Khan has been rallying his supporters to protest the new government since he was ousted from power last month – Copyright AFP ARIS MESSINIS

Nasir Jaffry with Lehaz Ali in Peshawar

All roads leading to Pakistan’s capital Islamabad were blocked on Wednesday ahead of a rally called by ousted prime minister Imran Khan, with police deploying tear gas to disperse supporters in one major city.

Since being removed from power through a no-confidence vote last month, the international cricket star-turned-politician has heaped pressure on the country’s fragile new coalition government by staging mass rallies demanding fresh elections.

In a centrepiece showdown with his rivals, Khan plans on Wednesday to lead 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 gather. 

“We will reach Islamabad at all costs. We will deal with any obstructions… and follow the orders of our leader,” shopkeeper and protester Irfan Ahmad, 34, told AFP in Peshawar.

The coalition government headed by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has pledged to stop Khan’s supporters from pouring into the city, calling the rally an attempt to “divide the nation and promote chaos”. 

Islamabad police on Wednesday published a traffic plan showing a complete blockade of the capital, backed up by a heavy security presence.

Entry and exit points on key highways towards Islamabad were blocked by police in the nearest main cities of Peshawar, Lahore and Multan.

In Lahore, police deployed tear gas against Khan supporters attempting to remove roadblocks and travel to Islamabad in convoys.

“Nobody should be allowed to besiege the capital and dictate his terms,” interior minister Rana Sanaullah said Tuesday.

Schools in Islamabad and neighbouring Rawalpindi were closed and all exams cancelled, while a state of emergency was declared at all hospitals, with staff put on alert. 

“We have seen the capital blocked before but this is something unprecedented,” Islamabad private school worker Allah Ditta, 52, told AFP.

Salon worker Sawera Masih complained that the wide-scale disruption was falling hardest on daily wage workers like herself.

“Whoever is in power doesn’t make a difference to us, but not earning even for a single day affects me and my family,” the 23-year-old said.

– Police raids –

On Tuesday, Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) accused police of arresting and detaining hundreds of its supporters in overnight raids. 

Police sources in Lahore who asked not to be named told AFP more than 200 supporters were detained on public order offences. 

The government and police have said that protesters had been planning to join the march with weapons.

One police officer was shot dead during the raids, Punjab Chief Minister Hamza Shahbaz Sharif said.

But a defiant Khan — who claims he was removed by a US-led foreign conspiracy — told reporters in Peshawar he would lead the largest march in Pakistan’s history. 

“I don’t consider it politics but jihad,” Khan said, referring to a term used by Muslims to describe a struggle.

In 2018, Khan was voted in by an electorate weary of the dynastic politics of the country’s two major parties.

The popular former sports star — who enjoyed the backing of the country’s powerful military — had promised to sweep away decades of entrenched corruption and cronyism but is believed to have fallen out with Pakistan’s generals.

He was brought down in part by his failure to rectify the country’s dire economic situation, including its crippling debt, shrinking foreign currency reserves and soaring inflation.