Senior aides to Pakistan’s ousted prime minister, Imran Khan, have pushed back against claims by the country’s powerful military that the embattled leader had reached out for help to end recent political crises.
The turmoil eventually brought down Khan’s nearly four-year-old coalition government this week in a parliamentary vote of no-confidence, and opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif replaced him as the country’s new prime minister.
An army spokesman told a nationally televised news conference on Thursday that Khan had reached out to Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and asked him to convey to the opposition that the prime minister would call early elections if the no-confidence motion against him was withdrawn.
Bajwa had taken the offer and placed it before the opposition but it turned it down, said Major General Babar Iftikhar. He added that Khan’s resignation from office as well as the no-trust vote were also discussed in the meeting with the army chief.
A senior Khan party leader, in a rare public rebuttal, said Friday that Bajwa, and not their embattled leader, had sought the meeting to find a solution to the crisis.
“Let me be clear -- I am stating on record PM did not call military for help on ‘breaking political deadlock,’” tweeted Shireen Mazari, a central leader of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, who served as the human rights minister in the deposed government.
Mazari claimed that option to how to resolve the crisis was brought to the table by Bajwa but Khan rejected the call to step down.
“The military sought the meeting through then Defense Minister (Pervez) Khattak & they (the army) put forward the 3 proposals of either PM resigning or taking part in VNC (vote of no-confidence) or fresh elections!” she tweeted.
Another aide to Khan, who requested not to be named, clarified further to VOA that Mazari’s statement “nullifies” the claim made by the army spokesman in his press conference that the request for mediation had come from the former prime minister’s office.
“I have already said what I had to say and I stand by it,” Army spokesman Iftikhar told VOA when asked for his response to Mazari’s comments.
Khan, the 69-year-old former cricket star, has alleged the United States orchestrated his government’s ouster in collusion with Pakistani opposition parties to punish him for paying an official visit to Russia against Washington's advice. His meeting with President Vladimir Putin took place on February 24, the day Russian forces invaded Ukraine.
Washington rejected the charges and the Pakistani opposition ridiculed them as a desperate attempt by Khan to cling to power after having lost support of the majority in parliament.
Iftikhar confirmed in his news conference Khan’s assertions that senior U.S. officials in a meeting early last month with Islamabad’s ambassador in Washington had used “undiplomatic language” that amounted to “blatant interference” in Pakistan’s domestic affairs.
The army spokesman also for the first time publicly acknowledged that Khan had visited Moscow with the backing of the military. Until now, opposition leaders were dismissing the ciphered diplomatic letter from Washington as a fake document. It was also being widely perceived that Khan had traveled to Russia without consulting with the military.
Iftikhar, however, dismissed Khan’s assertions that his removal from power was the outcome of a U.S. conspiracy.
The war of words between Khan’s party and the military comes as the former Pakistani leader is set to address another massive rally in the country largest city, Karachi, on Saturday.
Khan told a rally of tens of thousands of people in the northwestern city of Peshawar on Wednesday that his party would continue to hold these gatherings across major cities until the new government agrees to call early elections.
The next election in Pakistan is due in late 2023.
The former prime minister, on the eve of the Karachi rally, renewed allegations of U.S. involvement in his ouster.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price on Thursday strongly rejected the allegations by the former Pakistani leader.
“Our message has been clear and consistent on this. There is no truth whatsoever to the allegations that have been put forward,” Price told reporters in Washington.
Price reiterated that the U.S. supports the peaceful upholding of constitutional and democratic principles, including respect for human rights.
“We do not support, whether it’s in Pakistan or anywhere else around the world, one political party over another. We support broader principles, including the rule of law and equal justice under the law,” he added.