Islamabad: Pakistani politician Imran Khan declared he would lead his party workers and supporters on a “peaceful” march into Islamabad’s sensitive ‘red zone’ on Tuesday evening in defiance of a government ban.
“I shall walk in front and you will follow me,” said the 62-year-old cricket legend-turned-politician in an address to a crowd of Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf (PTI) supporters camping in the tense capital, which has been sealed off by police.
Khan’s party is demanding that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif resign and fresh elections be held. The party alleges the 2013 nationwide vote was manipulated, particularly in the heartland of Punjab, Sharif’s power base and home to 60 per cent of Pakistan’s 180-million-strong population.
“I will take the first bullet if the police open fire tomorrow,” he said.
He, however, expressed confidence that the police would exercise restraint as “we shall remain absolutely peaceful in the red zone when we proceed toward the parlaiment and [the] PM’s House.”
Khan asked party workers to promise to remain “absolutely peaceful” and asked the crowd to confirm this by raising hands, which the people did while chanting slogans.
“Tomorrow’s foray into the prohibited zone is part of the struggle for real democray, for freedom and to get rid of corrupt rulers. I invite fellow country from all regions and places to join the march,” he said.
Thousands of PTI and Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) workers and supporters are staging separate sit-in demonstrations in the capital to ramp up pressure on the prime miniser to step down — a demand strongly rebuffed so far by the ruling Paksistan Muslim League-N (PML-N).
PAT chief Tahir-ul-Qadri has given to the government an ultimatum, which was due to expire Monday. He addressed his workers including a large number of women and said the sit-in protests would also be held henceforth in capitals of all the provinces.
Khan set a two-day deadline, which is to end on Tuesday, for government to accept his party’s demands. He threatened to storm the capital’s sensitive ‘Red Zone’ if his party’s demands are not met, thus breaching blockade of the area by thousands of police and paramilitry troops.
Khan has said the government will be responsible for any bloodshed and cautioned that the resulting situation could lead to military intervention.
Meanwhile, the Sharif administration stepped up efforts to defuse the situation through mediation, with politicians striving to bring the two sides to the negotiating table.
The Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Syed Khurshid Shah said a committee comprising of lawmakers from 10 political parties had been constituted to hold dialogue with Imran Khan.
Shah, who was talking to the media after a meeting of parliamentary parties, said the committee was also ready to meet with Qadri as well.
He added that the committee will attempt to bridge the gap between the government and protesting parties.
Irfan Seddiqi, Special assistant to the Prime Minister, said members of two committees would engage the PTI and the PAT in talks with open mind. He added that while differences existed, he believed middle ground could be found.