Imran Khan waves at supporters as he arrives to lead an anti-government rally in Rawalpindi on Saturday night. AFP
Tariq Butt, Correspondent / Agencies
Former Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan, in his first public appearance since being wounded in a gun attack earlier this month, said on Saturday he was calling off his protest march to Islamabad because he feared it would cause havoc in the country.
Imran has been holding country-wide protests to push the government for early elections since being ousted from power in April. The protests were to culminate in a march to Islamabad, which threatened to worsen political turmoil in the nuclear-armed country, which is battling an economic crisis.
"I have decided not to go to Islamabad because I know there will be havoc and the loss will be to the country," Imran said while speaking at a gathering of thousands of supporters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, near the capital Islamabad.
Imran Khan (C) sits behind bullet proof glass shield as he arrives to lead an anti-government rally in Rawalpindi. AFP
“They [government] cannot afford Islamabad march... they cannot stop millions from entering Islamabad. We could have created Sri Lanka-like situation,” he said while addressing the party’s gathering in Rawalpindi. But, he added that the party has decided to quit all legislative assemblies in the country in a bid to force the incumbent rulers to announce early elections.
“If riots take place then things will get out of everyone’s hands. I tried my best not to take any step which could create chaos in the country,” he added.
“Today I am deciding against marching on Islamabad because we don’t want to spread anarchy in the country,” he announced. “We will not remain part of this corrupt system. We have decided to quit all legislative assemblies.”
Imran said overseas Pakistanis are standing with him because they are aware of the importance of the rule of law. "If Pakistan is in a difficult situation today it’s not because we are short of resources but due to the absence of rule of law.”
Tight security was in place for Imran Khan's appearance. A police official told local television channel Geo TV that a total of 10,000 personnel had been deployed for the event, with snipers positioned at various points for his security.
Workers install a bullet proof glass shield on the main stage of the venue ahead of the start an anti-government rally in Rawalpindi. AFP
Imran was earlier this month shot in the shin when his anti-government protest convoy bound for Islamabad came under attack in the east of the country, in what his aides said was a clear assassination attempt by his rivals.
He named Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif and a senior military official of plotting his assassination, but both the government and military have denied involvement. Sharif has called for a transparent inquiry. One person has been arrested over the incident and said he acted alone.
On Saturday, Imran Khan arrived on stage using a walking frame and addressed the crowd from behind bulletproof glass. He said he had been told by various security sources there was still a threat to his life.
Imran said he was consulting his party, the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI), on the possibility of resigning from all provincial assemblies in a fresh bid to push for early elections. PTI has already resigned from the federal parliament, but remains in power in two provinces and two administrative units.
A video was circulating on Saturday of aides posing with a now-removed blue cast that Imran wore on his right leg after the shooting.
Saghir Ahmed was among thousands arriving in the long build-up to Imran Khan's speech as a crane lowered bulletproof glass panels around a lectern on a stage draped with banners depicting a clenched fist breaking shackles.
The 32-year-old tailor, who shut his shop to attend, said Pakistan's dire economic situation — with galloping inflation and a nosediving rupee — has made life "unbearable."
"We hope Khan will introduce some reforms and the situation will improve," he told AFP.
Imran attracts cultish devotion from supporters, but on Saturday the 70-year-old will make his speech hundreds of metres (yards) from the bulk of the crowd for security reasons.
In the Nov.3 assassination attempt, a gunman opened fire from close range as Khan's open-top container truck made its way through a crowded street.
Buildings overlooking the site of Saturday's rally were searched overnight, a police official told AFP, while snipers were perched on rooftops surveying the mostly male supporters carrying red and green banners.
Authorities have thrown a ring of steel around Islamabad to prevent Khan's supporters from marching on government buildings, with thousands of security personnel deployed and roads blocked by shipping containers.
Police said any attempt by PTI supporters to enter Islamabad this time would be firmly dealt with. Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah — who Imran Khan says was involved in the assassination plot —issued a "red alert" Friday warning of security threats to the rally.
"PTI still has the time (to cancel)," he said, listing Pakistan's Taliban and Al Qaeda among the extremist groups that could harm Imran Khan.
The government says the assassination attempt was the work of a lone wolf now in custody, with police leaking a "confession" video by the junk-shop owner saying he acted because Khan was against Islam.
But Imran Khan, a former international cricket star with a playboy reputation before he married, said he has long warned that the government would blame a religious fanatic for any attempt to kill him.
Saturday's rally takes place two days after the government named a former spymaster as the next military chief.
Imran Khan made the announcement in a televised address to the nation, alleging that some lawmakers from his ruling Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) party had been bribed by the opposition to vote for former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani in the Senate elections on Wednesday.
Gilani, fielded by the opposition alliance Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) secured 169 votes while Hafeez Sheikh could manage 164 ballots. Seven votes were declared invalid and were rejected by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP).
"The PDM must bear in mind that people don’t support looters. People around the world have come out on the streets to protest against corruption. Has anyone ever come out on the streets to support corruption of political leaders.”
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