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Anti-Government Protesters March to Islamabad's 'Red Zone'

  • Ayaz Gul

Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan delivers a speech during a protest in Islamabad, Pakistan, Aug. 18, 2014.

Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan delivers a speech during a protest in Islamabad, Pakistan, Aug. 18, 2014.

Political tensions are set to come to a head in Pakistan, where an opposition politician says his party's lawmakers will resign from parliament and he will lead thousands of protesters into the capital’s heavily fortified “Red Zone,” despite stern government warnings.

Cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan has been leading an anti-government rally in the Pakistani capital, in a bid to force Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to step down over alleged vote fraud.

The protesters are mostly activists of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party, parliament’s third-largest political bloc. They are camping out near a so-called high-security “Red Zone” in Islamabad that houses diplomatic missions, parliament, the prime minister and president, and government offices.

Their anti-government rally has been mostly peaceful since it began four days ago. However, in an attempt to intensify pressure on the government, Khan told an emotionally charged crowd Monday night that his party has decided to resign from the national parliament and three provincial legislatures.

"These fake parliaments are not acceptable to my party because they are the outcome of rigged elections. We also reject 'the fake prime minister,'" said Khan.

The opposition politician also said he also decided to march toward the Red Zone Tuesday evening. He called on his supporters to follow him, and he warned security forces not to open fire on what he promised will be a peaceful and historic rally.

Authorities have deployed up to 30,000 security personnel and placed shipping containers to block access to the Red Zone.

The government has ruled out any possibility of Prime Minister Sharif stepping down, criticizing the demand as unconstitutional.

Ruling party lawmaker Marvi Memon says the government has set up two special committees to initiate talks with Khan's party on his demands within constitutional limits. But she says the government is determined not to allow anyone to enter the Red Zone.

“Peaceful or not peaceful, the demonstrations and protesters should not enter [the Red Zone]. Breaching the Red Zone will have serious consequences. We hope that he will agree to negotiations and not challenge the writ of the state," said Memon.

Memon sounded confident that “better sense” will prevail and Khan will seek a negotiated settlement of the issues related to the allegations of election fraud.
There are fears that any attempt by protesters to force their way into the Red Zone could trigger a violent confrontation with security forces.

Khan had promised to bring a million people to his anti-government rally, but the number so far has been far below his claims.

On Sunday, he surprised many in Pakistan by calling on his supporters across Pakistan to begin a so-called “civil disobedience movement” by not paying taxes and utility bills to what he alleged is a corrupt government.

The controversial announcement has led to severe media criticism of Khan. Lawmaker Marvi described it as an act of frustration.

“I would consider it frankly ludicrous per se, anti-democratic, illegal and definitely a desperate act, an act of frustration, and the reason is because the numbers that he was expecting did not come in," he said.

Meanwhile, thousands of followers of an anti-government cleric, Tahir-ul-Qadri, also are staging a “sit-in” protest not far from where Khan’s rally is located.
The Muslim cleric runs a network of Islamic schools and mosques in Pakistan and has been seeking justice for more than a dozen of his followers killed in a police crackdown in June.

Qadri also wants Prime Minister Sharif to step down, but the largely controversial cleric's critics say he is unlikely to pose any serious challenge for the government.

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