TIME Pakistan

Pakistani Protesters Storm State TV Station as Fresh Clashes Erupt

PAKISTAN-UNREST-POLITICS
Pakistani supporters of politician-cleric Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri and cricket turned politician Imran Khan shout antigovernment slogans after storming the headquarters of the state-owned Pakistani Television in Islamabad on Sept. 1, 2014 Aamir Qureshi—AFP/Getty Images

The attack comes just hours after the military calls for a peaceful solution to the political stalemate

Protesters stormed the headquarters of Pakistani Television (PTV) in Islamabad on Monday, taking it off air and beating up the station’s journalists, according to Reuters. The attack follows a bloody weekend in the Pakistani capital.

“They have stormed the PTV office,” an anchor said just before the transmission abruptly ended, Reuters reported. “PTV staff performing their journalistic duties are being beaten up.”

Paramilitary forces and soldiers later secured the station, which resumed broadcasting. Protesters left peacefully.

The storming of PTV came as fresh clashes erupted between stick-wielding protesters and police on Monday morning, just hours after the nation’s powerful military called for a peaceful solution to the political stalemate, according to Agence France-Presse.

Demonstrations against the government have been led for weeks by cricket icon turned opposition politician Imran Khan and outspoken politician-cleric Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri, in a bid to remove Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from power.

Khan insists that Sharif’s government finagled its way into office through rigged elections last year, and insists that the Prime Minister must resign, and fresh elections set, before the protests end.

The demonstrations that commenced in normally sleepy Islamabad on Aug. 15 have increasingly turned violent.

At least three people were reportedly killed over the weekend as protesters attempted to move deeper into the so-called red zone, where Parliament and executive offices, along with the Prime Minister’s residence and several embassies, are located.

On Monday, Khan urged his supporters to refrain from further violence in the wake of the recent bloodshed, according to Reuters.

“I call upon my workers to remain peaceful,” said Khan, addressing crowds from the top of a shipping container serving as a makeshift stage. “Do not carry out any acts of violence. God has given us victory.”

Domestic news outlet Dawn reports that the embattled Prime Minister and Pakistani army chief General Raheel Sharif are meeting in Islamabad to discuss the crisis.

TIME Pakistan

Pakistan Protesters Clash With Police as Calls for Sharif’s Ouster Grow

Supporters of Tahir ul-Qadri, Sufi cleric and leader of political party Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), carry an injured fellow protester during the Revolution March in Islamabad
Supporters of Tahir ul-Qadri, Sufi cleric and leader of political party Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), carry an injured fellow protester during the Revolution March in Islamabad, Aug. 31, 2014. Zohra Bensemra—Reuters

Three die in violence as opposition leaders demand Pakistani Prime Minister resign over electoral-fraud claims

There is an old joke about Islamabad, the sleepy and verdant capital of Pakistan: It is half the size of Arlington National Cemetery, it goes, but twice as dead. On Saturday night, however, the quiet streets near the government buildings in Islamabad were transformed into what many observers compared to a war zone, as anti-government protesters clashed for hours with the police amid clouds of tear gas. Three people are reported to have died, and hundreds wounded.

The clashes have dimmed hopes of an agreement being reached between the embattled government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the tens of thousands of protesters led by former cricket legend turned opposition leader Imran Khan and his ally, cleric Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri.

Khan, chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, contends the elections last year that brought Sharif to power for a third time were rigged. He is demanding the resignation of Sharif and fresh elections. Qadri wants nothing less than a complete overhaul of the political system through a “revolution.” Until Saturday, authorities had generally tolerated the crowds of protesters who began gathering in Islamabad on Aug. 14 for mostly peaceful demonstrations.

But as Khan and Qadri make clear that they will not settle for anything short of Sharif’s resignation, the deadlock has raised the prospect of an increasingly dangerous confrontation that could bring down the 15-month-old civilian government.

The two sides blame each other for the violence. Late on Saturday, Khan and Qadri urged their followers to enter the highly fortified “red zone” of the capital, a security-sensitive area at one end of Islamabad that is home to the presidential palace, Parliament, the Prime Minister’s house, the Supreme Court and many foreign embassies. The government says it was forced to respond after the protesters cleared away shipping containers used as barricades and advanced toward the Prime Minister’s residence.

Doctors treating the injured said the police had used several rounds of tear gas, baton charges and even rubber bullets. Images circulating on social media showed the bodies of protesters bearing bloody and livid scars from the apparent use of rubber bullets. At the same time, the police said they were confronted with a contingent intent on carrying out violence against state institutions, armed with large sticks, hammers and iron rods. Some of the protesters cut the gates at Parliament, letting hundreds enter into its lawns and parking area.

Pakistan’s journalists were caught in the middle of the clashes. Geo TV, one of Pakistan’s largest news channels, claimed that its offices were attacked by protesters, broadcasting images of large holes in its glass building. The standoff between the government and the protesters has sharply polarized Pakistan’s lively and excitable news media, with prominent news anchors taking vocal positions on both sides of the divide.

Sharif’s government has attempted to engage with the demonstrators. Earlier in the week, the army chief General Raheel Sharif — no relation to the Prime Minister — had been asked by the government to step in and mediate an end to the protests. But neither Khan nor Qadri seem prepared to compromise on anything short of their exacting demands.

The government says it is prepared to give Khan all he has asked for, including a high-profile judicial inquiry into allegations of electoral fraud, except Sharif’s resignation. But on Sunday morning, the onetime cricket star appeared emboldened by the protests, calling on supporters around the country to convene on Islamabad for a fresh night of protests.

Not all of Khan’s allies believe that’s the best approach. Javed Hashmi, a widely respected member of Khan’s party, spoke out Sunday against the decision to advance on the Prime Minister’s residence and Parliament. “This kind of behavior is not seen in any country in the world, where people pick up sticks and protest outside the Prime Minister’s house,” Hashmi said. He added that if martial law is imposed in the country, Khan will bear the blame for leading Pakistan to that fate.

Sharif, meanwhile, remains determined to stay in power. But Saturday night’s violence, with the threat of another confrontation Sunday, may have eroded his authority further. Up to now, analysts believed that Sharif’s premiership would withstand the demonstrations, despite being weakened by them. On Sunday morning, however, several commentators on Pakistani news channels have been drawing comparisons with 1977, when anti-rigging protests and police brutality against the backdrop of failed negotiations led to a military coup.

TIME Pakistan

3 Killed as Protesters Clash With Pakistan Police

Pakistan
A Pakistani protester throws tear gas shell back towards police during a protest in Islamabad, Pakistan, Aug. 31, 2014. B.K. Bangash—AP

The overnight violence has raised the stakes in the two-week sit-in led by opposition politician Imran Khan and fiery cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Thousands of anti-government protesters tried to raid the official residence of Pakistan’s prime minister, sparking clashes with police that killed three people and wounded nearly 400 amid cries for the premier to step down, officials said Sunday.

The overnight violence has raised the stakes in the two-week sit-in led by opposition politician Imran Khan and fiery cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri, which earlier saw demonstrators march past roadblocks to set up camp outside of Pakistan’s parliament. They demand Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif step down over their allegations of massive voting fraud in the election that brought him into office last year in the country’s first democratic transfer of power.

Backed by parliament and many political parties, Sharif has refused to step down as negotiators have tried to convince Qadri and Khan to end their protests.

Late Saturday night, protesters headed toward the prime minister’s residence. When the crowd started removing shipping containers used as barricades, police fired salvos of tear gas that forced the crowds back. Authorities have said they had no choice but to use force.

Scores of protesters carrying hammers and iron rods also broke down a fence outside of parliament late Saturday, enabling hundreds of people to enter the lawns and parking area. Islamabad police chief Khalid Khattak said the protesters were armed with large hammers, wire cutters, axes and even a crane.

The protesters started regrouping at daybreak Sunday and made repeated attempts to make their way through heavy deployment of police and barricades to reach the premier’s residence. Police strengthened their lines and responded by lobbing tear gas canisters.

Nearly 400 people — including women, children and police officers — were admitted to local hospitals, officials said. The injured had wounds from tear gas shells, batons and rubber bullets, said Dr. Javed Akram, who heads the capital’s main hospital.

One person drowned in a ditch after he was in a crowd bombarded with tear gas while two others died from wounds related to rubber bullets, said Dr. Wasim Khawaja, a senior official at the hospital.

Police also beat local journalists covering the protests with batons, injuring some, Railways Minister Saad Rafiq said. Rafiq said he intervened to stop the police assault and said that he would ask the government to investigate the officers’ conduct.

The protests began with a march from the eastern city of Lahore on Pakistan’s Independence Day on Aug. 14. Khan and Qadri had called for millions of protesters to join, but crowds have not been more than tens of thousands.

The protesters’ presence and heightened security measures have ground life in much of the capital to a halt.

Both Khan and Qadri stayed overnight at the protests, spending most of their time in the containers that they have been living in for days.

Khan called for demonstrations across Pakistan and described the police actions against the crowd as illegal. Qadri said he’d been up all night praying and monitoring the situation.

“If they think their brutality will force us back, they are wrong,” he said in a choked voice.

The demonstrations signify the starkest threat to Sharif’s third term as prime minister. His previous term ended with a military coup and his eventual exile. This turn in office has seen equally contentious relations with the country’s powerful army. He’s clashed with the military over the prosecution of the former army chief for treason, accusations the country’s powerful spy agency was behind the attempted killing of a top TV anchor, and a military operation in the tribal areas.

Sharif vowed Saturday he would not step down, but if the violence continues it could severely undermine his authority.

“The biggest question: Can Nawaz Sharif survive? The answer, in these frantic hours, must surely be a miserable, despondent no,” read an editorial in Dawn, one of the country’s leading English-language newspapers.

TIME Pakistan

Pakistan’s Army Steps in as Politicians Continue to Squabble

PAKISTAN-UNREST-POLITICS
Pakistani supporters of Canada-based preacher Tahir-ul-Qadri shout anti-government slogans during a protest in front of the Parliament in Islamabad on Aug. 29, 2014. Aamir Qureshi—AFP/Getty Images

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif asked the powerful army chief to negotiate a resolution to the political crisis

Just last May, Pakistan was celebrating its first ever successful transition from one elected government to another, after the completion of a full five-year term in office. Now, just 15 months after the last elections, hopes of democracy strengthening have dissipated after the country’s powerful army stepped in on Thursday night to assume a political role and mediate with anti-government protestors.

For over two weeks now, the Pakistani capital Islamabad has been paralyzed by tens of thousands of protestors led by the former cricket captain-turned-opposition leader Imran Khan and the prominent cleric Tahir ul-Qadri. The two groups insisted they were separate but led closely coordinated campaigns. Khan wanted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to resign, while Qadri has been insisting on a complete overhaul of the country’s political system as part of a self-styled “revolution.”

The government’s efforts to negotiate with the protestors repeatedly failed. Each time, Khan said that nothing short of the prime minister’s resignation would suffice. The former World Cup-winning cricket star claims that last year’s elections were systematically rigged to deny him victory—something the government strenuously denies. The European Union’s Election Observation Mission praised the 2013 elections as a demonstration of “strong democratic commitment,” in its July 2013 report, but added that “fundamental problems” remain in the electoral process that leave it “vulnerable to malpractice.”

Khan has become an increasingly polarizing figure in recent weeks: to his hardcore of supporters he is a rare, principled politician taking on a venal and inept political class; to his opponents he is a vain and reckless politician who is prepared to risk damaging democracy in pursuit of power. At the height of the protests, he incited his supporters to stop paying taxes and electricity bills as part of a “civil disobedience” campaign, and, in a flight of rhetoric, even seemed to be challenging Prime Minister Sharif to a duel.

Late on Thursday night, after weeks of holding out, Prime Minister Sharif asked Gen. Raheel Sharif (no relation) to negotiate a resolution to the crisis. The move seemed to underscore two abiding realities in Pakistan. The often squabbling civilians are still unable to resolve their differences among themselves, and that the true center of power remains the military’s headquarters in Rawalpindi.

There is no danger of the army taking over and imposing martial law. There appears to be little appetite for that in Pakistan, despite similar rollbacks of civilian rule over the last two years in Egypt and Thailand. But now the civilian government’s authority has been badly, if not fatally, weakened. Even if Prime Minister Sharif survives the current crisis, with his parliamentary majority intact, he will be hamstrung in his ability to implement many of his proposed reforms.

The Sharif government has scarcely helped itself, though. Prime Minister Sharif’s name was this week included among the accused in a police report looking into the killings of 14 protestors loyal to cleric Qadri in June, in the eastern city of Lahore. On that occasion, the notoriously heavy-handed Punjab police lived up to its reputation by assailing the crowds with tear gas and later opening fire. The prime minister isn’t likely to be tried for the incident, but his younger brother, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, is facing intense pressure to step down now.

Although Prime Minister Sharif formally asked the army chief to step in, it is widely suggested that he did so reluctantly. The Punjabi industrialist-turned-leader of the conservative Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz has a decades-old difficult relationship with Pakistan’s generals. Once a protégé of the former dictator Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Sharif turned against his mentors and has repeatedly clashed with every army chief during his two terms as prime minister in the 1990s. The last of those confrontations, in 1999, saw him overthrown in a military coup led by Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

Prime Minister Sharif’s current difficulties with the army appear to stretch back to his decision, soon after assuming office last year, to place Musharraf on trial for imposing a state of emergency in November 2007. His government’s other initiatives, including attempts at warmer ties with neighbors New Delhi and Kabul through an independent foreign policy, are believed to have chafed military leaders. Now, the army will likely play a more decisive role when it comes to Pakistan’s foreign and defense policies, relegating the civilians to the often messy and unpopular business of day-to-day governance.

Soon after it was announced that the army chief would step into mediate late on Thursday night, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, the defense minister and one of Prime Minister Sharif’s closest aides tried to gloss over the occasion by claiming that the army was merely playing “a constitutional role”. But another member of the Sharif cabinet was plainly dispirited by the sight of thousands on the street being able to imperil a national electoral mandate. A picture is worth a thousand words, tweeted Khurram Dastgir-Khan, the commerce minister, with an attached image. It was the movie poster for George Lucas’ Star Wars film, “The Empire Strikes Back.”

TIME Pakistan

Pakistani Cleric Says Talks With Government Failed

Khan and Qadri are demanding Sharif resign over allegations of vote fraud in last year's elections

ISLAMABAD (AP) — A fiery Pakistani cleric who has been leading a mass rally outside parliament demanding Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s resignation said on Thursday that he has “shut the door” on further talks with the government.

The development was a worrisome sign in the already troubled negotiations between the Pakistani government and the opposition amid a lingering crisis that has raised fears of political instability in this nuclear-armed country of 180 million people with a history of political turmoil and military dictatorships.

The cleric, Tahir-ul-Qadri, and Pakistan’s cricket-star-turned-politician Imran Khan have been leading mass rallies for two weeks in Islamabad.

The demonstrations initially locked down Islamabad and disrupted life and business in much of the city. Lately, the rallies have mostly fizzled out but the crowds, which are camped out near the parliament and administration buildings in the heart of the city, still surge, especially in the evenings.

Khan and Qadri are demanding Sharif resign over allegations of vote fraud in last year’s elections — something the prime minister has repeatedly said he would not do, though he is prepared to negotiate on some of the other demands by the protesters.

Qadri, a dual Pakistani-Canadian citizen with a wide following, emerged from a lengthy late night round with of meetings with government representatives to tell his followers that the talks had made no progress.

“I announce with regret that out talks with the government have failed,” Qadri said early Thursday. “We will now shut the door on any further talks.”

Qadri has also demanded that Sharif and the premier’s younger brother, who is chief minister in the eastern Punjab province, be arrested over an incident in June in the eastern city of Lahore when 14 people were killed during clashes between Qadri’s supporters and police.

Under Pakistani law, the prime minister enjoys immunity and cannot be arrested as long as he is in office.

In a compromise gesture, Railways Minister Saad Rafiq who is leading the talks with the opposition said the government agreed to register the Lahore case with the local authorities — meaning the incident would have to be investigated and could possibly go to trial.

“This case is being registered against all those people who have been named in the complaint” by Qadri, Rafiq said.

However, Rafiq said the government would never accept any unconstitutional demands, such as the disbanding of the parliament or Sharif’s resignation.

“Tahir-ul-Qadri wants the dissolution of assemblies and resignation of the prime minister,” he said. “We will never accept this demand.”

Sharif, whose election last May marked the first democratic transfer of power since Pakistan was carved out of India in 1947, cancelled a planned official visit to Turkey on Thursday to deal with the situation.

Sharif was forced once before from office during a previous stint as premier, when the then-army chief Pervez Musharraf seized power in a coup in 1999.

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TIME Pakistan

Protesters Demand the Resignation of Pakistan’s Prime Minister

Anti-government marchers enter Red Zone
Pakistani political party Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) members celebrate entering the Red Zone in Islamabad, Pakistan, on August 20, 2014. Thousands of protesters ran over the barricades and entered Pakistani capital Islamabad's sensitive Red Zone area, which houses state buildings, on Tuesday night as the heavy force deployed there offered no resistance. Chanting anti-government slogans, protesters wanted to topple the government. Anadolu Agency—Getty Images

Political opponents claim that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was fraudulently elected

Thousands of antigovernment protesters in Islamabad marched to the Parliament on Tuesday to demand the resignation of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Reuters reports.

Opposition leaders claim that Sharif was unfairly elected to power last year.

The protests are being led by former international cricketer Imran Khan — head of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party — and prominent politician-cleric Tahir ul-Qadri.

Khan, who is demanding that Sharif’s government make way for fresh elections, alleges that Sharif’s party won last year’s poll through fraudulent means. On Monday, he also claimed that 34 members of his PTI party would resign from their seats in the National Assembly in protest against the current regime.

Qadri is accusing Sharif of corruption and wants the current administration replaced by a unity government of technocrats. The two leaders have held separate protests in the past, but announced earlier this week that they would join forces to march on Parliament.

An estimated 50,000 protesters have been holding demonstrations in Islamabad for five days. Reuters says that some are equipped with cranes and bolt cutters to dismantle and remove the shipping containers that are being used to barricade the government “red zone,” where Parliament and other state buildings are located.

Sharif originally called on the country’s powerful military — which deposed him in a 1999 coup — to secure the red zone, but Khan issued him a warning. “If police try to stop us and there is violence, Nawaz, I will not spare you, I will come after you and put you in jail,” Reuters reported him as saying to a crowd of supporters.

As marchers approached the capital, Sharif relented and announced that protesters could enter the area. Sharif’s daughter Maryam Sharif said on Tuesday through her Twitter account that this was because there were families among the demonstrators.

The Guardian reported that protesters, including women throwing rose petals on the ground, were not stopped by police officers as they marched into the red zone.

The protests have put pressure on the weakened government that already has poor relations with the military. It also threatens to further shake the stability of Pakistan, which is battling against a bloody Taliban insurgency and a high unemployment rate.

[Reuters]

TIME Pakistan

Twin Protests Suspend Life in Pakistani Capital

Pakistan
Supporters of Pakistan's fiery anti-government cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri listen their leader at a rally in Islamabad on Aug. 17, 2014 Anjum Naveed—AP

The protests have taken a strain on the city of roughly 1.7 million inhabitants

(ISLAMABAD) — Twin protests demanding the Pakistani government step down have wreaked havoc in the capital, Islamabad, where commuters must circumvent shipping containers and barbed wire to get to work, protesters knock on people’s doors to use the bathroom, and garbage is piling up.

“People are talking of revolution but (they) don’t care about the difficulties we are facing due to this situation,” said Zafar Habib, a 56-year-old government employee in Islamabad.

Tens of thousands of people have descended on the capital in recent days, answering the call from cricket-star-turned-politician Imran Khan and anti-government cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri to push for the government’s ouster. Both claim widespread fraud in the May 2013 vote and want new elections, something the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is not likely to concede.

Both Khan and Qadri have vowed to remain in the streets with their supporters until Sharif leaves office, raising fears of political instability in the nuclear-armed nation, which only saw its first democratic transfer of power last year.

The protests have taken a strain on the city of roughly 1.7 million inhabitants, many of whom work for the government, embassies, or non-governmental organizations. The difficulties began last Wednesday, when the government started to beef up security, and show no signs of letting up in the next few days.

The most affected neighborhoods have been in the eastern part of the city where the protests have been centered, not too far from the so-called “Red Zone” and a diplomatic enclave that house government offices, embassies and other sensitive installations.

Residents say protesters — mostly women — knock on their doors early in the morning, hoping to use their bathrooms.

“This is frustrating! I and other residents were trying to accommodate the women but then today some men also knocked on my door,” said Sajid Khan, a real estate agent.

Male protesters have also been crowding the washrooms in local mosques or simply going into the nearby forests. Garbage is beginning to pile up as well.

“My main concern is the deteriorating hygienic condition. This will make us and our children ill,” said retired government servant Jahangir Zahid.

Residents and people trying to get to work have also been stymied by both the protesters and the security measures the government has taken to deal with them. Early last week the government started putting up shipping containers to control access to and from the city. The hundreds of vehicles brought by protesters have also clogged the roads.

“I have to put in more hours and fuel to reach my office these days,” said software engineer Adeel Ahmed.

While the crowds have fallen well short of the million marchers that both Khan and Qadri promised, their presence and the heightened security measures have virtually shut down business in the capital. The rallies have nevertheless remained festive, with families picnicking and men and women dancing to drums and national songs.

Police estimate the crowds in both sit-ins have gradually dwindled since they arrived in the capital late Friday. Both rallies began as caravans of vehicles setting out from the eastern city of Lahore.

According to police, there are currently around 25,000 to 30,000 people in both demonstrations. The two rallies are centered along parallel streets, each with its own stage for speakers, but the crowds overlap and mingle at various times, especially when the leaders or key figures address the gatherings.

Business owners say many of their suppliers are not able to reach their shops. Shaukat Ali, who owns a meat shop, said Sunday that his supplier hasn’t been able to come so all he had was a crate of chickens to sell.

Bicycle store owner Adeel Zafar said his shop has been closed for a week because of the protests.

“Why we are being punished?” he said.

Protesters say they have little choice but to rely on local residents for help. Saeed Ahmed came from the city of Faisalabad, about 300 kilometers (185 miles) away, to support Qadri. Ahmed said they were ready to suffer what may come in support of Qadri’s revolution but complained that local residents weren’t too cooperative.

“At least let us use the restroom and share a little food with us,” he said. “This is what our religion teaches us.”

TIME

Thousands Heading to Opposition Rally in Pakistan

(ISLAMABAD) — Thousands of Pakistani opposition supporters were on the road for a second day Friday, heading in two separate convoys to the capital, Islamabad, for a massive rally meant to pressure the country’s prime minister to resign over allegations of rigging last year’s parliamentary elections.

The convoys, which started out on Thursday morning from the city of Lahore, were in response to calls by two very different opposition figures: Imran Khan, the famous cricketer-turned-politician, and firebrand cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri who commands a strong following through his network of mosques and religious schools in Pakistan.

Both have challenged the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who came to power in 2013 in the first democratic transfer of power in a country which has seen three coups since gaining independence in 1947.

They demand new elections under the supervision of a neutral government, but Sharif’s aides say the demand is unconstitutional. Khan also wants a new election commission chief appointed before the vote is held, while Qadri says electoral reforms are necessary.

The opposition march comes at a time when Pakistan’s military is fighting militants in the troubled North Waziristan tribal region, which has been a base for militants accused of launching attacks in Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan. The military has killed over 500 militants there since launching the June 15 operation.

The government has criticized Khan and Qadri, saying the country needs unity — not turmoil and dissent — at a time when the armed forces are fighting militants who have killed thousands of people in recent years. Authorities have also said there have been intelligence reports about possible attacks on the convoys or the opposition rally, which is expected to start Friday evening in Islamabad.

After 20 hours on the road, the slow-moving convoys had covered about half of the distance of 300 kilometers (187 miles) toward the capital.

“Listen, Nawaz Sharif, I am coming to Islamabad to seek your resignation,” a boisterous Khan told followers from atop his truck as it passed through the city of Gujranwala, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) away from Islamabad.

In Gujranwala, dozens of Sharif supporters pelted Khan’s truck with shoes and stones but he was unharmed, his aides said. Pakistani TV showed supporters and Khan and Sharif throwing stones at each other in the city.

Earlier, Khan said he was hoping to lead a march of one million people in the Pakistani capital later in the day. Qadri also said he expected one million people to join him in Islamabad, a city of 1.7 million residents according to a 2012 census.

Ahead of the rally, thousands of riot police and special units were deployed across Islamabad. Authorities also blocked many roads in the capital with shipping containers.

Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan on Thursday apologized for the city’s paralysis, insisting the measures were for the residents’ own safety and warning the demonstrators they would be dealt with “an iron hand” if they try to disrupt law and order.

Sharif criticized his opponents for pursuing “negative politics” and promised to safeguard democratic institutions.

Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country of 180 million people, has largely been ruled by military dictators since it was carved out of India in 1947.

Sharif has also been the victim of a military coup. His elected government was ousted in 1999 by then army chief Pervez Musharraf.

The army still wields much influence over life in Pakistan, which has seen frequent attacks by militants and insurgents of various backgrounds and agendas.

Late Thursday, attackers tried to storm two air bases in the southwestern city of Quetta, the capital of southwestern Baluchistan province, sparking a gunbattle that killed 10 militants, the police said.

Police chief Muhammad Amlish said seven security personnel were also wounded in the attack. He said the attackers used guns and grenades as they tried to enter the Smungli and Khalid military bases on a sprawling complex next to the city’s airport. Initial police reports had said only two attackers were involved.

No one claimed responsibility for the attack but nationalists groups have for years waged a low-insurgency in Baluchistan to pressure the government for a fairer share of local resources.

___

Associated Press Writer Abdul Sattar from Quetta contributed to this report.

TIME Pakistan

Pakistan Rallies to Test Government, Its Democracy

Pakistan
Ahead of planned antigovernment protests, Pakistani police force deploy in Islamabad on Aug. 12, 2014 B.K. Bangash—AP

Opponents of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif call for the government to step down and new elections to be held during a protest in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, on Thursday

(ISLAMABAD) — Ahead of planned massive anti-government protests, Pakistan’s capital feels like a city preparing for a siege.

Shipping containers block roads leading into central Islamabad, placed by security forces hoping to halt protesters supporting either a fiery anti-government cleric or a cricket star-turned-politician. Police in riot gear can be seen taking up positions across the city as authorities suspended mobile phone service in some areas. Meanwhile, those worried the government may cut off fuel shipments to slow demonstrators have lined up at gas stations.

The protests Thursday represent the strongest challenge yet to the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, just a year after he took office in the first democratic transfer of power in a country long plagued by military coups. And how the country reacts to calls for Sharif’s ouster will show how far its nascent democracy has come.

“I think there is going to be a test of wills in Islamabad,” said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, who heads the Institute for Strategic Studies.

Two men are at the forefront of challenges to Sharif.

The first is Tahir-ul-Qadri, a Pakistani cleric who’s also a Canadian national. He commands a loyal following of thousands through his network of mosques and religious schools in Pakistan. Last year, Qadri held a protest in the capital calling for vaguely worded election reforms ahead of the country’s May poll, grinding life in Islamabad to a halt. His followers already clashed with police this weekend.

The other is Pakistan’s former cricket legend Imran Khan. His Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party is the third-largest political bloc in parliament. Khan’s attempts to win followers in Punjab province, the power base for Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League-N, have rattled the ruling party.

Both men want the government to step down and new elections be held. Khan alleges last year’s vote is invalid due to widespread rigging by government supporters.

“A sea of people is coming to Islamabad and they are peaceful and you cannot stop them,” Khan said Tuesday.

Both men picked Pakistan’s Independence Day for their rallies, the day marking when the country became its own nation carved out of India in 1947. In the opaque world of Pakistani politics, where security services remain powerful, there has been wide speculation that the two men have other internal support, something they’ve denied.

Their representatives met Tuesday to discuss their strategy. Shah Mahmood Qureshi, a former foreign minister backing Khan, said after the meeting that protesters would not resort to violence, but would resist any effort to impose martial law.

“We are working on a national agenda to bring real democracy in the country,” Qureshi said.

Sharif, himself overthrown in the 1999 coup that brought former army chief Pervez Musharraf to power, is taking no chances. He has met regularly with top advisers, and the government has invoked a rarely-used article in the constitution allowing the military to step in to maintain law and order if needed.

In a televised address Tuesday, Sharif said a Supreme Court committee would look into claims of fraud in last year’s election. He also warned that “no one will be allowed to create anarchy and play with the constitution.”

“It is not possible that in presence of parliament, decision should be taken on streets,” he said. “Here is nobody’s monarchy nor here is there any dictatorship.”

After Sharif’s address, Khan said the prime minister would have to resign before any probe.

Hanging over the planned rallies has been the question of whether the Pakistani military has had any role in fomenting opposition to a government with which they have increasingly been at odds.

This nuclear-armed country of 180 million people has had three military coups since independence. The military hasn’t commented on Khan or Qadri but generally says it does not meddle in politics.

Relations between Sharif and the military frayed when the government decided late last year to prosecute Musharraf for high treason. The military also has bristled at accusations that its powerful spy chief was behind the assassination attempt of a powerful television anchor.

Sharif and the military also are believed to be at odds with opening up trade with India, which it has fought in three wars, as well as whether to negotiate with Taliban militants.

But regardless of who is behind the protests, many believe Sharif won’t back down from the challenge.

“This time around he is going to stand his ground, firm and polite, no matter what the consequences,” said Rais, the analyst.

___

Associated Press writer Zarar Khan contributed to this report.

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