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Thursday, June 1, 2023

Normalcy returns to Pakistani capital as ex-PM Khan calls off protest

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ISLAMABAD: Normalcy resumed in the Pakistani capital Islamabad on Thursday after Imran Khan, the ousted former prime minister, called off a protest march, giving the government six days to dissolve assemblies and announce fresh elections.
On Thursday morning, thousands of supporters of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party who had gathered at D-Chowk in front of Parliament from different parts of the country, especially the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab provinces, dispersed peacefully following Khan’s address.
This followed a long day of political drama that included clashes between demonstrators and police, and the arrests of hundreds of Khan supporters nationwide.
“We are leaving for our homes now, but will come back again on Khan’s call to topple the government,” Hassan Shirazi, a demonstrator from Pakpattan city, told Arab News.
Shortly after the protest ended, the Islamabad’s district administration started removing shipping containers to unblock all roads in the federal capital and adjoining Rawalpindi. Police and other law enforcement personnel requisitioned from other provinces were also seen packing up and boarding buses to return to their stations.
The administration also reopened Jinnah Avenue, the main protest venue, and all other roads in Islamabad, including Srinagar Highway and Islamabad Expressway. The main Murree Road in Rawalpindi has also been reopened for both sides of traffic, according to the Islamabad Traffic Police.
Entry into the Red Zone, which houses important buildings like Parliament and the Supreme Court, is still restricted.
Meanwhile, the federal government filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking contempt of court proceedings against Khan for what it says was a violation of the court’s directions.
The Supreme Court had on Wednesday ordered the government and the PTI to constitute negotiating committees and meet at 10 p.m. to finalize modalities for the peaceful and safe conduct of Khan’s long march to the capital. Negotiations were not held as both sides claimed the other’s representatives did not show up.
The court had also ordered the government to designate a spot where the protesters could rally. However, protesters converged at D-Chowk instead and Khan held his rally on Jinnah Avenue.
Police fired teargas, baton-charged and detained supporters of Khan on Wednesday to stop them from reaching the capital to demand fresh elections. Clashes were also reported in multiple other cities, including the southern port city of Karachi and the eastern city of Lahore, and the government called in the army to maintain law and order in the capital.
Khan, ousted in a no-confidence vote last month, had urged supporters to march on Islamabad and alleges he was pushed from power in a foreign conspiracy orchestrated by the US, refusing to accept the new government.
“I am giving you (the government) six days; if you don’t announce elections I will come back to Islamabad again with all Pakistanis,” he said as he addressed supporters before ending his protest.
“(The) government has tried every method to crush our Azadi (freedom) March; they used teargas on peaceful protest, our homes were raided and privacy of the homes were violated,” Khan said.
“However, I have seen the nation free itself of fear of slavery.”
Khan started his anti-government march from Peshawar on Wednesday morning while the government blocked all roads leading to the capital and rounded up supporters.
Videos shot by an Arab News reporter on Wednesday evening showed thousands of Khan supporters walking down the capital’s Blue Area business zone toward D-Chowk while police fired tear gas at them, before charging them with batons.
Supporters had lit fires all the way down the road to D-Chowk in an apparent bid to neutralize the effects of the tear gas, but police said on Twitter they had set fire to trees and vehicles.
“Police called the fire brigade. Some places were set on fire while the protesters again set the trees on the Express Chowk,” the police said. “Security in the Red Zone has been beefed up.”
Other video clips on social media platforms also showed a burning metro station in the city surrounded by hundreds of PTI supporters, while a mob torched a prison van in Karachi after clashing with police.
Local TV footage showed police fighting with Khan’s supporters in Lahore, beating them and, in some places, breaking vehicle windscreens and bundling people into police vans.
Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah later said police had carried out a total of 4,417 raids on Khan supporters’ homes, offices and rallies, and had arrested nearly 1,700 people. Of those, 250 were later freed.
“We haven’t stopped anyone from exercising their constitutional and legal right to hold a rally or take part in democratic politics,” Sanaullah said, “but we can’t allow anyone to sow violence and chaos.”

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