Pakistani protesters march toward parliament

Activists pressuring premier to resign

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ISLAMABAD — Thou­sands of Paki­stani op­po­si­tion sup­port­ers, some armed with sticks and wire cut­ters, marched Tues­day to­ward a for­ti­fied zone in the cen­ter of Islam­a­bad to press their de­mands for the res­ig­na­tion of the prime min­is­ter.

The pro­test­ers, who have been camped out in the cap­i­tal since Fri­day, are led by Im­ran Khan, a for­mer cricket star, and a char­is­matic cleric named Mu­ham­mad Tahir-ul Qadri, who run sep­a­rate cam­paigns but are united in their op­po­si­tion to Prime Min­is­ter Nawaz Sharif.

The march on the city’s “red zone” — an area that con­tains the par­lia­ment, the prime min­is­ter’s of­fi­cial res­i­dence and many Western em­bas­sies — was widely seen as a fi­nal ef­fort by Mr. Khan to rally his sup­port base af­ter days of threats and po­lit­i­cal rhet­o­ric. But while Mr. Khan’s tac­tics have met with much con­dem­na­tion in the news me­dia, he has suc­ceeded in cre­at­ing a ma­jor cri­sis for Mr. Sharif, whose gov­ern­ment came to power in June 2013.

The gov­ern­ment has ap­peared rud­der­less as the cri­sis has grown in re­cent days. Mr. Sharif’s ad­min­is­tra­tion failed to en­gage Mr. Khan and Mr. Qadri in ne­go­ti­a­tions to end the stand­off, and ap­peared to be hop­ing that the pro­tests would sim­ply fade. But there was lit­tle sign of that Tues­day, as Mr. Khan and Mr. Qadri gave im­pas­sioned speeches be­fore send­ing their fol­low­ers to­ward the city’s pro­tected area, which was ringed by ship­ping con­tain­ers and thou­sands of po­lice and para­mil­i­tary of­fi­cers.

In his speech be­fore a cheer­ing crowd, Mr. Khan re­peat­edly at­tacked Mr. Sharif, whom he ac­cuses of steal­ing the 2013 elec­tion through vote rig­ging, and chal­lenged him to a “duel.” De­scrib­ing the prime min­is­ter as a thief and a cor­rupt pol­i­ti­cian, Mr. Khan vowed to turn the space out­side the par­lia­ment into “a Tahrir Square,” a ref­er­ence to the site of the 2011 up­ris­ing in Egypt. While in­struct­ing his ju­bi­lant sup­port­ers to re­main peace­ful, he re­peat­edly warned of the pos­si­bil­ity of vi­o­lence.

“Nawaz Sharif,” he told the crowd, di­rectly ad­dress­ing the prime min­is­ter. “If there is any vi­o­lence, I will not leave you.” Mo­ments later, when a he­li­cop­ter hov­ered nearby, Mr. Khan said it had come to “take away Sharif,” draw­ing a roar of ap­proval.

Po­lice of­fi­cials es­ti­mated the crowd at be­tween 40,000 and 50,000 peo­ple. As par­tic­i­pants headed to­ward the par­lia­ment, tele­vi­sion im­ages showed a crane on the street that was ap­par­ently be­ing used to re­move ship­ping con­tain­ers im­ped­ing their way.

The gov­ern­ment said 30,000 se­cu­rity forces had been de­ployed to pro­tect the red zone, which in­cludes the U.S. Em­bassy. Wit­nesses said they could not see ev­i­dence of such a large con­tin­gent, but the army said in a state­ment that it had de­ployed 700 sol­diers to pro­tect the par­lia­ment, the Supreme Court and other sen­si­tive build­ings in­side the area.

The de­ci­sion to de­ploy army troops was taken af­ter a meet­ing be­tween Mr. Sharif and the army chief, Gen. Ra­heel Sharif, who is not re­lated to the prime min­is­ter. “The army is not be­hind any­one,” said Chaud­hry Nisar Ali Khan, the Paki­stani in­te­rior min­is­ter, dur­ing a news brief­ing ear­lier in the day.

Nawaz Sharif’s of­fi­cials have pri­vately said they feared that the op­po­si­tion marches could pro­vide a pre­text for the mil­i­tary to in­ter­vene — much as it did in 1999, when Nawaz Sharif’s last stint in power came to an abrupt end with a mil­i­tary coup.

Many sus­pect that Mr. Qadri, the cleric, has at least tacit back­ing from the mil­i­tary. Mr. Qadri de­nies any such links and is openly sup­ported by the lead­ers of Barelvi and Shi­ite Islamic or­ga­ni­za­tions, which has helped to gal­va­nize his ded­i­cated sup­port­ers.

Asia - South Asia - Islamabad - Pakistan - Pakistan government - Nawaz Sharif - Ali Khan


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