Imran Khan plans march on Islamabad’s ‘Red Zone’

Pakistani opposition politician Imran Khan addresses his supporters during a protest march against the country’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz-led government in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad on Monday.

Pakistani opposition politician Imran Khan addresses his supporters during a protest march against the country’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz-led government in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad on Monday.

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ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s opposition leader Imran Khan said on Monday he plans to lead demonstrations into the capital’s central “Red Zone”, a heavily protected area and home to major government offices and Western embassies.

Khan, who is trying to force the prime minister to step down over allegations he rigged last year’s elections, said that he wanted the march on Tuesday to be peaceful and for women and children to come.

“I will lead the march on the Red Zone and my workers will follow me,” he told protesters, asking his party workers to remain peaceful during the march. “I am inviting all families … there will be women and children with us.”

The government has repeatedly said his supporters are free to demonstrate peacefully but will not be permitted to enter the Red Zone.

The area has been sealed off with shipping containers and barbed wire, and is guarded by thousands of riot police, the army and the paramilitary Rangers.

Any attempt by protesters to force their way in could lead to a violent confrontation.

Police estimated that there were about 55,000 protesters at demonstrations on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Khan’s party announced Monday it is to renounce all its parliamentary seats, in a bitter row with the government over alleged poll rigging.

Former cricket star Khan claims last year’s general election, in which his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party came third, was rigged and has demanded Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif resign and hold new polls. The dramatic mass resignation came as the government tried to launch formal talks with Khan and populist cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri, who is leading a parallel protest, also calling for new elections.

Khan and Qadri on Saturday led thousands of supporters on a “long march” to the capital from the eastern city of Lahore, hoping to mobilize a mass movement to oust Sharif.

But Khan’s protest failed to attract the vast crowds he had promised and other opposition parties on Monday shunned his call for a campaign of civil disobedience, leaving him looking increasingly isolated.

PTI vice-chairman Shah Mehmood Qureshi announced the shock mass resignation of MPs late on Monday afternoon.

“We are resigning from the National Assembly, Punjab Assembly, Baluchistan Assembly and Sindh Assembly,” Qureshi told reporters.

He said the party was still making a decision about what to do in northwestern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, where they are in power.

The MPs’ resignations must be submitted to the national assembly speaker and passed on to the election commission. Qureshi did not say when this would happen.

PTI scored their best-ever performance in last year’s election, which Sharif won in a landslide victory and was rated as free and credible by international observers.

They won 27 seats – which will now go to by-elections – and were awarded seven more through Pakistan’s quota system for getting women and religious minorities into parliament.

Analyst Rahimullah Yusufzai said Khan had “isolated and weakened” himself with the civil disobedience call and the mass resignation was a risky gamble. “This is an act of desperation. It will not bring the government under pressure – it has already survived pressure of the march,” he told AFP.

Before PTI’s unexpected, high-stakes gamble, other opposition parties had distanced themselves from Khan’s call for people to stop paying taxes and utility bills in protest against the government.

Former president Asif Ali Zardari, co-chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party, the largest opposition party, said Khan’s willingness to use “unconstitutional means” to pursue his goals threatened democracy.

“Democracy and nation will not be served by calls for civil disobedience nor by a stubborn refusal by any side to engage in a meaningful dialogue on political issues,” Zardari said in a statement.

The authorities deployed tens of thousands of security personnel on Islamabad’s streets and blocked main roads to contain the protests, but by Monday their numbers had ebbed and life was returning to normal.

There was more condemnation for Khan’s civil disobedience call from the business community. The Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry said the focus should be on getting the shaky economy back on track.

“Pakistan is in critical economic and political condition and political activities have hampered the process of economic and commercial development of the country,” its president Zakaria Usman said in a statement.

A stinging editorial from Dawn, Pakistan’s oldest English-language newspaper, said Khan had “miscalculated disastrously and painted himself and his party into a corner”.

Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) has accused Khan of trying to derail Pakistan’s perennially fragile democratic system. PML-N lawmaker and spokeswoman Marvi Memon said the government was not concerned by Khan’s “ludicrous” civil disobedience appeal.

The nuclear-armed country has experienced three military coups and the latest crisis has triggered more speculation about possible intervention by the powerful armed forces.


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