Two convoys are taking thousands of anti-government protesters from the Pakistani city of Lahore to Islamabad, the capital, amid tight security. The protesters are separately led by opposition politician Imran Khan and anti-government cleric Tahirul Qadri. They want Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to resign and have promised a change of government.
Tahir ul Qadri, who heads Pakistan Awami Tehrik or Peoples Movement, says his “revolution march” will join another anti-government march being led by opposition leader Imran Khan.
Authorities in the eastern city of Lahore had not allowed Qadri to begin his march on Wednesday and hundreds of police had surrounded his secretariat to foil his attempt. The government had adopted a tough stance against Qadri after he delivered harsh speeches against the government. The government has accused him of inciting people into indulging in violence.
However, Chaudhry Muhammad Sarwar, governor of Punjab province of which Lahore is the capital, said the government has decided to permit the religious leader to lead his supporters and march to the country’s capital Islamabad.
Provincial police chief Mushtaq Sukhera said the ban on Qadri was lifted after he assured the authorities that he would remain peaceful.
“I want to bring out a revolution to change the lives of the poor as the present system has failed to deliver to the common men,” Qadri told his supporters before leaving for Islamabad in his car.
Several thousand supporters are accompanying Qadri and he said more would join on the way to Islamabad. His supporters will join the other march led by Imran Khan and both will start a sit-in in Islamabad to announce demands.
“My revolution will be green, peaceful and democratic. It should alleviate poverty, hold accountability of leaders to remove corruption, grant social rights to the people, eliminate terrorism and extremism from this country,” Qadri said.
In Islamabad, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan visited a possible venue for the sit-in and reviewed security situation ahead of the gathering. The government has reportedly decided to allow the march at Zero Point, the beginning point of the capital city.
Earlier Thursday Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s (PTI) chief Imran Khan started his anti-government march from Lahore.
Khan, a former cricketing icon, told hundreds of supporters at the beginning of the march that he was struggling for a “new Pakistan” as the rulers have “failed to deliver”, Xinhua reported.
The marchers will reach capital Islamabad after covering a distance of nearly 370 km, where they will start the sit-in.
Khan said that he would not end his protest until Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif resigned.
He claims that Sharif has formed the government through “rigging” in last year’s general elections, a claim rejected by the government.
Sharif has rejected calls for his resignation and accused Imran Khan of weakening his elected government.
Paramilitary troops and police have been deployed in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, to ensure security.
The police did not intervene in Khan’s march as he started from his residence in Zaman Park area of Lahore.
“We will get rid of the Pharaoh from Pakistan. Today is a decisive day in the history of Pakistan,” Khan told hundreds of cheering supporters from the rooftop of his home.
Khan later boarded a truck along with senior leaders of his PTI party. He has named his march the “Azadi (freedom) March” which coincides with Pakistan’s Independence Day being celebrated Aug 14.
“Come to Islamabad not for me but for Pakistan,” Imran Khan said.
President Mamnoon Hussain Thursday warned against political adventurism at a time when the country was facing the threat of terrorism with the security forces engaged in an operation in North Waziristan tribal region.
A court in Lahore had earlier stopped Imran Khan and Qadri from the “unconstitutional marches”. Both camps are angry about the sinking economy, growing militancy, and failure to deliver core services such as a steady electricity supply.
Mr Khan has also accused Mr Sharif of failing to probe fraud in last year’s polls.
The two leaders and their followers are expected to travel 350km (218 miles) with cars, trucks, motorbikes and jeeps, says the BBC’s M Ilyas Khan. However, the convoys were making slow progress and had yet to leave Lahore as night fell on Thursday. A Reuters reporter estimated that a total of 17,000 people had turned up in support of Mr Khan and Mr Qadri.
The leaders are expected to arrive at Islamabad to stage their rallies by early Friday at the latest.
Mr Khan and Mr Qadri have agreed to assemble at Islamabad’s Zero Point, a sprawling avenue at the east end of the capital, away from residential and commercial centres and the red zone, which houses government establishments and foreign missions. Access to many main roads in Islamabad has been sealed off by riot police and shipping containers.
Tens of thousands of security personnel have been deployed in Islamabad and in cities across Punjab province. The mobile phone network has also been partially suspended. Many fear clashes between police and Mr Qadri’s followers, who want to hold their own “revolution march” on Islamabad.