Supporters of Imran Khan, cricketer-turned-opposition
politician and chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf
(PTI) political party, react while listening during the
Freedom March in Islamabad. Photo by Reuters
As twin protests in Islamabad entered a fifth day,
Pakistan police said they had arrested some 150 supporters of
protest leaders overnight in Punjab province in a crackdown
ahead of widening demonstrations in the capital.
Opposition leader Imran Khan and firebrand cleric Tahir
ul-Qadri have led tens of thousands of supporters from Punjab
to Islamabad in a bid to bring down Prime Minister Nawaz
Sharif, whom they accuse of rigging elections and corruption.
The protests have piled extra pressure on the 15-month-old
civilian government already struggling to overcome high
unemployment, daily power cuts and a Taliban insurgency.
The protests have raised questions over the political
stability of Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation of 180 million
people with a history of coups.
Police in Punjab, Pakistan's wealthiest and most populous
province, arrested 147 supporters of Khan and Qadri overnight
to prevent them joining the protests in Islamabad, said
Inspector Rana Hussain in the central town of Sargodha.
Khan, a former international cricket star, said on Monday he
would lead protesters into the capital's "Red Zone", an area
home to Western embassies and key government ministries, on
The government has previously said protesters are not allowed
to enter the area. It is flooded with riot police and
paramilitary forces and cordoned off with shipping containers
and barbed wire.
The government has not said whether Khan would be able to
proceed to the Red Zone or not.
Qadri has said he will meet his supporters later on Tuesday
to consider whether to march alongside Khan. Their protests
have so far remained separate because the two have different
supporters and plans for what should happen if Sharif steps
Khan also announced his party, the third largest in the
country, would resign from their 34 seats in the National
Assembly and in all provinces apart from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa,
which his party controls.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which borders Afghanistan, is the
heartland of the Taliban insurgency. Khan's announcement
means Pakistan will have to hold a raft of by-elections.
Police have estimated the number of people at the protests at
around 55,000, including many women and children. Khan has
called for his supporters to bring their families on the
Pakistan's newspapers have criticised Khan, with many running
editorials accusing him of seeking to provoke a violent
confrontation after failing to muster the numbers needed to
So far, the country's powerful military has remained silent
on the protests. Some analysts believe Khan and Qadri mounted
their challenge because Sharif's relationship with the
military had deteriorated in recent months, appearing to
leave the fledgling civilian government isolated.
However, Sharif, a conservative businessman who ran promising
to fix the economy and power crisis, has a large power base.
He won a landslide victory in last year's election, taking a
majority of seats in parliament.
Sharif also has some support from the country's judiciary,
which warned last week that the protesters should not
consider any "unconstitutional" action.