Several major cities in Pakistan have become battlegrounds as supporters of ousted prime minister Imran Khan march toward Islamabad.
Police resorted to firing tear gas and baton charges on Wednesday in the northern state of Punjab, the country’s largest province and a stronghold of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), after protesters tried to forcefully remove barricades to stop them from moving towards the capital.
Several demonstrators were seen fainting during the clashes. In Islamabad, officials used dozens of shipping containers to cordon off major roads into the city as well as having a heavy presence of security forces.
Entry restrictions have been imposed on key roads that lead to the high-profile red zone area where government buildings are located to stop Mr Khan’s supporters from trying to break through.
However, the country’s interior minister Rana Sanaullah said he had directed Islamabad police to allow all government employees on duty to enter the federal capital.
Mr Sanaullah also said journalists shouldn’t be stopped and routes heading towards hospitals should remain open. One demonstrator heading for the protest, however, told The Independent that heavy police deployment has made any kind of movement impossible in the city.
Meanwhile, at least 10 people were arrested in Lahore and many others were detained across the country.
Section 144, an emergency law prohibiting gatherings, was imposed in several major cities, including Lahore, Karachi and the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad.
Local media outlets reported that police in Punjab’s Attock city resorted to drilling barricades to the ground and mixing pieces of broken glass with asphalt.
The PML-N’s Punjab government sought the deployment of the Pakistan Rangers, a federal-level paramilitary organisation, to handle law and order.
Reports said ambulances heading to hospitals and emergency personnel also faced issues due to road blockades.
The police detained dozens of members of Mr Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), continuing a clampdown that had begun soon after the march was announced. Those detained included former ministers.
More than 400 party supporters were arrested across the country, PTI spokesperson and former minister Fawad Chaudhry claimed on Tuesday.
Raids on the homes of PTI members had already begun at midnight a day earlier.
Former energy minister and PTI member Hammad Azhar said they were determined to march forward despite police action.
Mr Khan, who started his march from the city of Peshawar early on Wednesday where his party’s government is in power, said in a video message that his “caravan” would reach Islamabad.
The former international cricketer who became the country’s first prime minister to be removed through a no-confidence vote called it a fight for the basic rights of the people.
Mr Khan said his party’s only demand was fresh, free and fair elections and they wouldn’t rest until a date for a vote was decided.
Asking his party’s leaders and workers to not be “afraid of jails”, Mr Khan said: “Our march is not a political movement but a jihad [holy war].”
He also urged his supporters to carry the Pakistan flag with them “This is a defining moment today for the Haqiqi Azaadi [real freedom] of Pakistan,” he wrote.
The ruling coalition government of PML-N and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which wrested power from Mr Khan, had refused to provide permission for the march on Tuesday after they said the PTI chair failed to assure them of peaceful demonstrations.
Maryam Nawaz Sharif, daughter of PML-N founder Nawaz Sharif and a prominent member of the ruling Sharif family, said police recovered guns from PTI members and alleged Mr Khan’s motive was to create chaos.
“This is the ugly face of the so-called long march. These are the intentions,” she wrote.
The PTI, however, remained defiant and decided to continue with the march that they said would be the biggest the country has ever witnessed. Long lines of cars were seen on the roads as PTI supporters, protesting against Mr Khan’s ousting, tried moving towards Islamabad despite the blockades.
The long march, also termed the “Azadi March” (march for freedom), was called by Mr Khan on Sunday as he urged his supporters from around the country to gather in Islamabad and stay till the united coalition ruling the country is forced to carry out fresh elections.
Political tensions are at an all-time high in Pakistan after Mr Khan, who served as the 22nd prime minister of Pakistan for three and a half years, was ousted through the historic no-confidence motion in April.
He has alleged that a US-led conspiracy helped remove him because his foreign policy leaned towards China and Russia. Mr Khan also held the US responsible for attacks on Pakistani soil during the “war on terror”.
Mr Khan, who rose to power with a promise of ending corruption and dynastic politics, has called the new government led by Shehbaz Sharif a “puppet of the US” and a group of “thieves” that Pakistan will never accept.