A court in Pakistan ordered police Wednesday to pause an operation to arrest former prime minister Imran Khan until Thursday, ending more than 24 hours of violent clashes between his supporters and law enforcement personnel outside his residence in the eastern city of Lahore.
The clashes in the capital of the country's most populous Punjab province erupted on Tuesday after police officers tried to arrest Khan for failing to appear in court on graft charges, prompting thousands of supporters of his opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party to gather outside his home to block the attempt.
Police and paramilitary forces fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd. Stick-wielding PTI workers responded by attacking law enforcement officers with slingshots and bricks, turning the upscale Zaman Park locality into a battleground.
The standoff continued into Wednesday afternoon and injured many people on both sides, with police rounding up scores of PTI workers. Violent protests also broke out in other major Pakistani cities, including Islamabad, the neighboring garrison city of Rawalpindi, Karachi, Peshawar, and Quetta.
Khan, 70, has been facing dozens of court cases, including sedition, terrorism and corruption charges, since a parliamentary vote of no-confidence toppled his government last April. He denies the allegations, saying they result from the "political victimization" by his successor, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif.
The deposed prime minister released a video statement Wednesday morning from inside his home, surrounded by dozens of spent tear gas canisters that he said were fired at his compound. The cricket-hero-turned politician alleged the police action aimed to kill him.
"These are not only the canisters, but they fired bullets at us. Those who fired bullets were not here to put me before the court. They want my exclusion from national politics, so they came to arrest me," Khan said.
Khan later came out of his home, wearing a gas mask, and spoke to his supporters.
Speaking to VOA on Tuesday, the ousted prime minister denounced the attempt to arrest him as illegal and he signaled that Pakistan's powerful military establishment was behind the government's alleged efforts to keep him from running for office.
"And the establishment is one man, the army chief. He makes the decisions. Whatever he says is followed," Khan said when asked to explain the establishment.
Khan is not the first high-profile leader to have accused the military of interfering and orchestrating removal of elected governments in Pakistan. The army has staged three coups and ruled Pakistan for nearly half of its 75-year history.
The former prime minister was shot in the leg during a protest rally last November and accused the Sharif government of plotting to kill him with the help of an unnamed Pakistani army general. The government rejected the charges.
A provincial high court in Lahore, while ruling on a PTI challenge to the police operation on Wednesday afternoon, ordered its suspension until Thursday morning.
The judge left it for a federal court to determine the fate of Khan's arrest warrant after reviewing his written pledge that he will appear at a hearing later this week about his alleged selling of state gifts given by foreign leaders when he was prime minister from 2018 to 2022.
The arrest warrant was issued last week against the PTI chief for defying orders to present himself to answer the graft charges.
Khan, who has rejected any wrongdoing accusation, confirmed on Twitter that he had signed a "surety bond" guaranteeing his appearance in the court on Saturday.
The political turmoil in cash-strapped Pakistan comes as Sharif's coalition government has been struggling to convince the International Monetary Fund to resume lending to the country to help address a deepening economic crisis and avert a looming default on foreign loan payments.