ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan’s defiant former Prime Minister Imran Khan cancelled a planned, open-ended sit-in in Islamabad on Thursday, temporarily assuaging fears of protracted civil conflict after he led thousands on a march toward Parliament demanding the government’s resignation.
Khan’s followers began converging on the capital on Wednesday, with some 10,000 reaching the city center around midnight. Khan himself entered as part of a large convoy of cars, buses and trucks, with demonstrators waving flags and rallying overnight. Some clashed with police outside Parliament.
Khan gave Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif — who replaced him in April — less than a week to call for new elections, warning that if his government didn’t comply, he’d return to the capital with three million supporters.
“I am giving you six days,” Khan said from a sound truck parked on the central Jinnah Avenue early Thursday, demanding the dissolution of Parliament as well. “If you don’t do it after six days, I will return,” he said.
Hours later, Sharif refused the demand, saying he was open to talks with Khan but that any decision about an early vote would be made by parliament. “You cannot dictate to us. No such blackmailing from you will be accepted,” he said to applause at the National Assembly.
Khan, a former cricket star turned Islamist politician, was prime minister for over three and half years until he was ousted last month by a no-confidence vote in Parliament. Since then, he has held rallies across the country, saying his removal from office was the result of a U.S.-organized plot. Washington has denied the allegation, and Sharif has called Khan’s claim “a pack of lies.”
On Wednesday, clashes erupted in the eastern city of Lahore, when riot police fired tear gas and pushed back hundreds of pro-Khan demonstrators who hurled stones as they tried to pass a roadblocked bridge near the city to board buses bound for Islamabad.
Dozens of Khan’s followers clashed with police in Islamabad, where the demonstrators set fire to bushes lining a main boulevard, sending smoke and flames rising into the sky. Altercations were also reported elsewhere, including in Karachi, where demonstrators burned a police vehicle.
The government says it has arrested more than 1,700 Khan supporters in the past 48 hours.
Khan lost his grip on power in April when some members of his Tehreek-e-Insaf party and a key coalition partner defected ahead of a no-confidence vote. But he blamed the United States for it, saying Washington plotted to oust him with Sharif’s help.
Khan had become unpopular in the final months of his rule because of increasing inflation. However, he has significantly regained the lost popularity due to his rhetorical campaign against the United States and Sharif’s government.
Although Khan has rallied across the country since his ouster, his Wednesday march on Islamabad was his largest. He himself led thousands of supporters from the northwestern city of Peshawar, urging his countrymen to reach Islamabad with women and children to “liberate” Pakistan from the U.S.-imposed government.
Khan and his party had been urging crowds to march to the square in front of Parliament, where he was to join them. He gave no reason for calling off the sit-in. Hundreds of his supporters who reached the area clashed with police.
Authorities say Khan ended his rally after seeing a poor popular response from the masses, which they say were only between 10,000 and 15,000.
Khan went to his home in the Islamabad suburbs after calling off the protest.