Islamabad blockaded as PTI begins freedom march

— Punjab bans gathering of five or more people, detains hundreds of PTI leaders in overnight raids 

PESHAWAR/ISLAMABAD/LAHORE: All roads leading to Islamabad were blocked on Wednesday ahead of the march called by former prime minister Imran Khan to press the new administration to quit and call new elections, with police deploying tear gas to disperse supporters in Lahore.

Since being removed from power through a no-confidence vote last month, Khan has heaped pressure on the fragile coalition government of a dozen parties by staging mass rallies demanding fresh elections.

In a centrepiece showdown with his rivals, Khan is leading tens of thousands of people from his power base in 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 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.

CRACKDOWN INTENSIFIES IN LAHORE

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

Lahore police resorted to tear gas shelling and baton-charge in an effort to disperse the protesters marching towards the capital.

Police use tear gas to disperse activists of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) of former prime minister Imran Khan during a protest in Lahore on May 25, 2022, as all roads leading into Pakistan’s capital were blocked ahead of a major protest planned by Khan and his supporters. — ARIF ALI/AFP via Getty Images

It launched a crackdown on Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) workers and supporters in a rally former minister Hammad Azhar was heading as part of the party’s Lahore caravan. Dozens of protesters were arrested as they clashed with police at Bhatti Chowk neighbourhood in old Lahore.

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

Schools in Islamabad and 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.

‘DON’T FEAR ARRESTS’

Meanwhile, Khan said he would reach the D-Chowk neighbourhood of Islamabad at 3:00 pm and urged his followers to do the same.

He will reach Swabi by helicopter from Peshawar, leading the procession from Ambar Interchange.

In a video message for his supporters ahead of the march, he announced his party’s only demand is a free and fair snap election and they won’t go home until they get the date for the polls.

“Don’t be afraid of prisons,” the former prime minister said to his activists and supporters. “Our future generations would not forgive us if we did not come out today,” he added.

LEADERSHIP ARRESTED

Earlier in the wee hours of Wednesday, the police arrested PTI senator Ejaz Chaudhry from his residence in Lahore.

According to a party spokesperson, Chaudhry was shifted to an undisclosed location.

His “residence was stormed by over 100 policemen who broke open the gate, harassed members of his family and took their phones. But this all won’t dampen our spirits,” a tweet from Chaudhry’s account said.

Meanwhile, police also arrested former minister Mian Mehmood ur-Rasheed. The police party raided his house and took him into custody under Section 16 of Maintenance of Public Order (MPO).

Before arresting the two, police also raided former education minister Shafqat Mehmood’s residence, however, couldn’t find him.

The former minister said two women constables of the police searched his house.

Seperately, 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 claimed that protesters had been planning to join the march with weapons.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court will hear a petition to remove the blockades into Islamabad. Authorities say if Khan agrees to submit a written assurance that his rally will be peaceful and he will confine himself to a public park, the government would consider lifting its ban.

— With input from AFP, AP

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