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Pakistan marks I-Day with anti-government protests

Last updated on: August 14, 2014 19:47 IST

Pakistan marks I-Day with anti-government protests

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Sajjad Hussain and M Zulqernain

Thousands of protesters, demanding the ouster of Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif over alleged vote rigging, on Thursday began their march to the capital from Lahore, deepening fears of political instability and army’s intervention in the coup-prone country.

On a day Pakistan celebrated its Independence Day, two anti-government groups, encouraged by a last-minute court verdict allowing peaceful demonstrations, set off on a 370-kilometre journey to the country’s capital, which has been turned into a fortress, with the army guarding key government installations.

Led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and Canada-based cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri, the two groups of agitators, plan to converge on Islamabad to press Sharif to call an early election little over a year after his landslide victory in the polls.

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Image: Supporters of cricketer-turned-opposition politician Imran Khan during the Freedom March in Lahore.
Photographs: Akhtar Soomro/Reuters

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Pakistan marks I-Day with anti-government protests

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Sajjad Hussain and M Zulqernain

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf leader Khan initiated his ‘Azadi March’ from ZamanPark, Lahore, while Qadri launched his ‘Inqelab March’ (revolution march) from the Model Townarea of the city.

Both of them, though not officially allied, are calling for the ouster of the government that they condemn as corrupt.

Khan’s protesters, including women and children, carrying sleeping mats and food, were first to leave from his residence as government removed roadblocks, allowing the demonstrators to hold a “peaceful march”.

Khan led his supporters from a modified, bulletproof shipping container. “Join this march not for me but for sake of your children and if you want real independence in Pakistan,” Khan said in his brief address at start of protest march.

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Image: Imran Khan, chairman of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf political party, gestures as he leads the Freedom March in Lahore
Photographs: Mani Rana/Reuters

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Pakistan marks I-Day with anti-government protests

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Sajjad Hussain and M Zulqernain

Appealing to people to come out of their houses and join him in the struggle for the “creation of new Pakistan”, the PTI leader said, “To get freedom one has to fight. We will lay a new Pakistan’s foundation after reaching Islamabad.”

Khan has already underlined his demands, saying Sharif should resign and a caretaker government should be formed for holding a fresh general election in the country.

Both marches were initially banned but late on Wednesday the government said Khan’s march could go ahead. After some hesitation, the government also allowed the supporters of Qadri to leave ModelTown area of Lahore.

Qadri also unveiled the goals of his ‘revolution’ march before leaving his party headquarters, saying the fundamental purpose of the march is to restore democracy and alleviate poverty.

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Image: Imran Khan, chairman of PTI, waves a national flag from a truck as he leads the Freedom March in Lahore
Photographs: Akhtar Soomro/Reuters

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Pakistan marks I-Day with anti-government protests

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Sajjad Hussain and M Zulqernain

The revolution march will give the constitutional and democratic rights to the oppressed of this country,” he said, addressing a press conference.

The army which has already been handed over the security of capital for three months, has a history of capturing power from democratically elected governments. In its 67-year history, Pakistan has witnessed three coups, including one against Sharif in 1999 by the then army chief General Parvez Musharraf.

After some hectic backdoor negotiations, it is now expected the government will also let the protesters enter Islamabad which has been completely sealed off, sources said.

“Both are bound by the verdict of Lahore high court which said yesterday that only constitutional and peaceful protests were allowed under the law,” a source said.

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Image: Muhammad Tahirul Qadri, Sufi cleric and leader of political party Pakistan Awami Tehreek gestures to supporters.
Photographs: Mohsin Raza/Reuters

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Pakistan marks I-Day with anti-government protests

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Sajjad Hussain and M Zulqernain

About 5,000 Islamabad capital territory police and thousands of paramilitary soldiers have been deployed in the capital, with the fear of violence gripping the city.

Both Khan and Qadri have given assurances that they will disperse peacefully and will not create any law and order situation. But still there are fears that any untoward incident may spiral into crisis, leaving space for powerful army to intervene.

The police had virtually besieged Qadri in his ModelTown residence of Lahore by placing containers but they have now been withdrawn by the government.

Pakistan’s intelligence agencies have reported to the government that there are chances of bloodshed if Qadri and his supporters are stopped by force. “Qadri may use women and children in his caravan as human shield to break in the police cordon,” according to one such report.

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Image: A supporter of the PTI during the Freedom March
Photographs: Akhtar Soomro/Reuters

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Sajjad Hussain and M Zulqernain

“We are allowing Qadri to hold his march after he gave guarantee that his supporters would remain peaceful,” Punjab Governor Chaudhry Sarwar said.

He said neither the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf nor the Pakistan Awami Tahreek workers would be allowed to hold sit-in in Red Zone of Islamabad, home to diplomatic missions and government offices.

“The government has showed big heart and allowed both parties to hold their protest and now they should not take law and order into their hands during their protests,” the governor said. 

Qazi Faiz, a spokesman for PAT, said that the government allowed its workers to proceed for the protest march after knowing that it could not stop the followers of Qadri from reaching Islamabad.

“We are peaceful people and the history of our party shows that we have never ever taken law into our hands,” he said.

 


Image: Thousands of riot police sealed off Pakistan's capital with barbed wire and shipping containers.
Photographs: Mohsin Raza/Reuters

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