Pakistani opposition leader Imran Khan led thousands of supporters to a restricted area in the capital to demand Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s resignation, prompting him to back down from threats to disperse them.
Protesters removed barbed wire and cranes moved shipping containers that blocked roads heading to the “red zone” established by Islamabad police. Officers in riot gear stood by as hundreds of men and women wrapped in party flags proceeded onto parliament.
“The government will not use force and will tolerate them,” Pervaiz Rashid, minister for information, told Geo TV after Khan’s march began. “We are still ready to talk to you.”
A confrontation with security forces would escalate an attempt by Khan and cleric Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri to oust Sharif’s 15-month-old government through a show of force on Pakistan’s streets. The demonstration threatens Sharif’s efforts to revive Pakistan’s finances and fight a Taliban insurgency that has killed more than 55,000 people since 2001.
“Nawaz Sharif, you need to stop hiding behind the police and army,” Khan told supporters tonight before they began marching. “Face me like a man, and become a real tiger instead of circus tiger,” he said, a reference to the logo of Sharif’s ruling Pakistan Muslim League party.
The army deployed troops into the red zone after Sharif’s administration authorized them to protect the area. About 350 troops were deployed to the red zone today, bringing the total to 700, according to a senior army officer who asked not to be identified because he’s not authorized to speak with the media.
Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, who announced the decision to have the military take control of operations in the red zone, said the army wasn’t behind the political standoff and repeated a call for talks with protesters.
The benchmark KSE 100 Index, which lost 1.6 percent last week, fell 0.8 percent in Karachi, the second consecutive day of losses. The rupee declined about 0.5 percent to its lowest level since March 10.
Khan and Qadri set up protest camps in Islamabad last week in a bid to oust Sharif over allegations that he rigged last year’s election and benefited personally from government contracts. Supporters have slept on the streets over the past few days, triggering concerns that the military would seize power in a nation ruled by the army for half of its existence.
Khan, a former cricket star whose Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party was the third biggest in parliament, called on supporters of his to remain peaceful and warned police against stopping them. He said he needed to act now because authorities dismissed his complaints of fraud in last year’s election because of a lack of evidence.
More than 40,000 police officers had been deployed around the red zone, which the interior minister has vowed to protect.
“They have been equipped with all necessary stuff like tear gas, rubber bullets, jackets and shields to handle riots,” Naeem Ahmed, a spokesman for Islamabad’s police, said by phone today. “Whether they would be used or not will depend on the situation.”
Khan has sought to increase pressure on Sharif over the past few days, calling on supporters to stop paying tax and announcing that all the party’s lawmakers elected in last year’s national vote would resign. The party is for now retaining power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the one province it controls.
“If they occupy a major building in the red zone then that will be something very serious,” Umbreen Javaid, head of the political science department at the University of Punjab, said by phone from Lahore.
Sharif has vowed to finish out his five-year term that ends in 2018 while offering to probe allegations of election fraud. He formed a negotiating committee that includes four ministers from his cabinet, Samaa TV reported yesterday.
Khan will lead the rally from the front, holding a loudspeaker to control his marchers, Arif Alvi, a lawmaker from Khan’s party, told Abb Takk television.
“We hope the government doesn’t do anything silly,” Alvi said. “If there is violence, we will remain peaceful, but it will become difficult to control the workers.”