by Asif Hassan
ISLAMABAD- Pakistan’s cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan said Saturday he would continue to lead protests in Islamabad along with thousands of his supporters until Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif steps down.
Khan says the May 2013 general election that brought Sharif to power in a landslide was rigged, and has demanded he resign and hold new polls.
Addressing a rally after leading protesters from the eastern city of Lahore, Khan said he would stage a sit-in on Saturday afternoon that would continue until Sharif leaves office.
“The time has arrived when the nation should decide. I will stay here until the prime minister resigns. We don’t accept a prime minister who has been appointed after rigged elections,” Khan told supporters in the early hours of Saturday after arriving in the capital.
The demonstration is the culmination of the “long march” — in reality a motorized cavalcade — that set off Thursday from the eastern city of Lahore, around 300 kilometres (190 miles) away, to try to topple the government.
The marchers took more than 36 hours to reach the capital as convoys made stopovers in various cities along the road, where they were warmly welcomed.
“We went to the election commission and the supreme court against the rigging in the elections. When we could not get justice, then we decided that there is no other way but to come on roads to get justice,” he said.
A populist cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri led thousands of his own followers alongside Khan.
Both Khan and Qadri plan to rally in Islamabad until their demands for Sharif’s resignation and for electoral reforms are met.
Police and witnesses said on Friday that 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 kilometres southeast of Islamabad.
Khan said shots were fired on his march, telling ARY television news: “They threw stones at us…They fired bullets at us.”
However, police said there were no shots and an AFP 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 AFP. “There was no firing incident,” she added.
The AFP 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.
Supporters of PTI, which came third in last year’s election, lined up to welcome the convoy in towns along the Grand Trunk Road that links Lahore and Islamabad.
Exact numbers for the march have not been confirmed and organizers said they expected a clearer picture once all of those who joined the rally congregate in Islamabad. But Khan hailed it as a success and said one million took part.
“The people have decided. I said one million people will come to Islamabad, and they have come out.”