ISLAMABAD — Pakistani police fired teargas, baton-charged and detained supporters of ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan on Wednesday to stop them from reaching the capital Islamabad to demand fresh elections, officials and witnesses said.
Political and economic volatility has deepened in the nuclear-armed South Asian nation ahead of a likely announcement by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) later in the day on whether it will resume a $6 billion rescue package.
With foreign reserves falling to $10.3 billion – lower than two months of imports – a fast-crashing rupee and double-digit inflation, Pakistan’s political turmoil has compounded its social and economic discontent.
Khan, ousted in a confidence vote last month after losing his partners in his coalition, has urged supporters to march on Islamabad and stay there until the new government is dissolved and a date for a fresh election is announced.
Islamabad’s entry and exit routes have been blocked, as well as all important sites, including parliament, government offices and diplomatic missions, officials said. Entry and exit points were also blocked to and from all major cities in Punjab province and on the Grand Trunk Road (GTR), they said.
“No blockade can stop us,” Khan said from atop a truck on the GT road on his way to Islamabad from the northwestern city of Peshawar.
“We will remain in Islamabad till announcement of dates for dissolution of assemblies & elections are given,” he later tweeted.
The government has said Khan’s march is illegal and accuses him of seeking to bring protesters to Islamabad with “evil intentions.”
Live local TV footage showed police fighting with Khan’s supporters, beating them and in some places breaking their vehicles’ windscreens and bundling them into police vans.
Amjad Malik, an interior ministry official, told Reuters no one had been seriously injured in the clashes, which took place mostly in Punjab province.
Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah later said police had carried out a total of 4,417 swoops on Khan supporters’ homes, offices and on protest rallies and had arrested nearly 1,700 people. Of those, 250 were freed after they submitted affidavits that they had nothing to do with the protest march, he said.
Heavy contingents of police and paramilitary troops have been deployed since Tuesday evening. Schools were closed, examinations suspended and normal life remained disturbed in the capital and all major cities in the Punjab province.
Khan has promised to rally more than two million people in Islamabad, but Sanaullah said only a few thousand people were making their way to the capital.
“We haven’t stopped anyone from exercising their constitutional and legal right to hold a rally or take part in democratic politics, but we can’t allow anyone to sow violence and chaos,” said Sanaullah.
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said his government was trying to clear up an economic mess that he blamed Khan for.
“You’ve handed over a sinking economy to us, and now you’re planning sit-ins and protest,” Sharif said in Islamabad. “We are trying to energize this weak economy.” (Additional reporting by Mubasher Bukhari in Lahore and Syed Raza Hasan in Karachi; Editing by Kim Coghill and Gareth Jones)