Clashes as Pakistan anti-government marches advance on capital

KHARIAN, Pakistan – Clashes broke out Friday, August 15, as protesters led in convoys by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and a populist cleric advanced on the Pakistani capital to try to topple the government they say was elected by fraud.

Khan and preacher Tahir-ul-Qadri say the May 2013 general election that brought Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to power in a landslide was rigged, and are demanding he resign and hold new polls.

They plan to rally in Islamabad to press their claims, at the end of a "long march" – in reality a motorized cavalcade – which set off Thursday from the eastern city of Lahore, around 300 kilometers away.

Police and witnesses said activists from Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party clashed with supporters of Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) in the town of Gujranwala, some 200 kilometers southeast of Islamabad.

Khan said shots were fired on his march, telling ARY television news: "They threw stones at us while standing at police vans. They fired bullets at us."

However, police said there were no shots and an Agence France-Presse photographer at the scene also heard no gunfire.

"Workers of PTI and PML-N clashed in Gujranwala and threw stones at each other," a police spokeswoman told Agence France-Presse. "There was no firing incident."

The Agence France-Presse photographer said a group of up to 40 youths who were following the convoy and shouting slogans clashed with workers from Khan's party before being dispersed by police.

Marvi Memon, a PMLN member of parliament and spokeswoman, told Agence France-Presse the events in Gujranwala were "regrettable" but said there was no shooting and her party's workers had been provoked by what she called Khan and Qadri's "violent speeches."

Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, the premier's brother, ordered an investigation into the clashes and appealed for calm.

Supporters of PTI, which came third in last year's election, lined up to welcome the convoy in towns along the Grand Trunk Road which links Lahore and Islamabad.

Exact numbers on the march were difficult to judge, and more people are likely to join it as it passes through towns along the route, but Khan already hailed it a success.

"I can only see that the monarchy is nearing its end," Khan said, referring to Sharif.

"The people have decided as I had said that one million people will come to Islamabad, and they have come out."

Slow progress

Both Khan and Qadri had originally planned for their marches to converge on Islamabad on Thursday, Pakistan's independence day, but they made slow progress.

By Friday evening Khan's march was in the town of Kharian, still around 150 kilometres (90 miles) from Islamabad and slowed to a snail's pace by PTI well-wishers, an Agence France-Presse photographer said.

The march led by Qadri, head of his own Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) movement, had progressed better, but was still around 60 kilometres short of the capital, in the town of Gujjar Khan.

Security in Islamabad was ramped up in recent days, with more than 20,000 police and security forces on the streets.

The government has agreed to allow the two groups to hold rallies but many of the city's streets are blocked off with shipping containers to protect sensitive areas.

Around 5,000-7,000 PTI supporters, most from northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, gathered in the capital in preparation for the arrival of the march.

There was a festive mood, with many dancing, singing and waving party flags, despite a torrential monsoon downpour.

Young workers were seen installing huge loudspeakers and floodlights at the venue with roadside parked trucks, loaded with generators.

'Effort to derail democracy'

Government officials have accused the march organizers of trying to derail democracy and Sharif said the marches were a distraction from more pressing issues.

Memon, the PMLN spokeswoman, said Khan had ignored constitutional routes to address his grievances, including an offer by Sharif to set up a judicial commission to investigate rigging allegations.

"All his efforts are undemocratic and unconstitutional and an effort to derail democracy," she said, adding that the march was a distraction from more pressing issues.

Pakistan is waging a military offensive against Taliban hideouts in the northwest, while also trying to boost a sagging economy and solve a chronic power supply crisis.

Highlighting the fragile security situation facing the nuclear-armed state, militants attacked two airbases in the southwestern city of Quetta on Thursday, with 12 attackers killed by security forces. –