Tahir-ul-Qadri’s supporters remove containers during their anti-government demonstration in Islamabad on Tuesday. (AFP)
Islamabad, Aug. 19 (Agencies): Pakistan protesters reached the Islamabad parliament building in the early hours of this morning in their bid to force the Prime Minister to resign, but did not immediately go inside.
Journalists saw protesters on their way to parliament wearing hard hats and tough leather gloves using cranes and bolt cutters to move aside barricades of shipping containers and barbed wire.
Cleric Tahir ul-Qadri and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf chief Imran Khan both want Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to resign.
The government has allowed protests in the capital but said they would not be permitted to march on Parliament. But late today, tens of thousands of protesters pushed aside the barricades and streamed towards the National Assembly as riot police and paramilitary forces looked on and did not intervene.
About 700 soldiers were also deployed in “Red Zone”, the area of the capital which is home to Parliament, the Prime Minister’s residence and office and many western embassies.
No clashes were reported.
“Bldgs in red Zone r symbol of State and being protected by Army, therefore, sanctity of these national symbols must be respected,” an army spokesman tweeted. “Situation requires patience, wisdom and sagacity from all stakeholders to resolve prevailing impasse through meaningful dialogue.”
Police baton-charged Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek protesters as they neared Parliament.
Anti-government protesters entered the Red Zone even as clashes broke out between them and the police at Serena Chowk where they removed shipping containers, Dunya TV reported.
Police have been instructed to try to avoid violence. They did not intervene as protesters moved the outermost of a ring of barricades. Police in the outer ring of security have sticks, not guns. Some are armed with tear gas and rubber bullets.
The protests are led by Khan and Qadri, who controls a network of Islamic schools and charities. Hours before the marchers set off, the interior minister announced that soldiers would be deployed to stop the protesters.
The announcement was intended to send a message to the coup-prone country that the protests do not have military backing. It also underscored how the domestic Opposition has forced the fledgling civilian government to rely on the country’s powerful army, despite deep mistrust between the two institutions.
The protests have piled extra pressure on the 15-month-old government as it struggles to overcome high unemployment, daily power cuts and a Taliban insurgency. The showdown has also raised broader questions over the stability of Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation of 180 million people.
Khan and Qadri both want Sharif to resign. Khan accuses him of rigging last year’s polls. Qadri accuses him of corruption. Police estimate the two protest leaders have around 55,000 supporters between them.
Both Khan and Qadri have been holding protest rallies in the capital since Friday with government permission. But they have been banned from the Red Zone.
Their protests have so far remained separate because the two have different supporters and different plans for what should happen if Sharif steps down. But today, Qadri said his supporters would march on parliament, a day after Khan asked his supporters to do the same.
“The people’s Parliament ... have decided to do their sit in in front of Parliament,” Qadri announced this evening, referring to his protesters, to approving roars from the crowd. Most of Khan’s supporters are young men. Qadri’s supporters are seen as more disciplined and determined; there are many families among them.
All the men have sticks; brigades of youths also have goggles and masks to deal with tear gas.
Khan said any violence would be the fault of the Prime Minister, as his female supporters scattered baskets of rose petals over bemused police in body armour. “If police try to stop us and there is violence, Nawaz I will not spare you, I will come after you and put you in jail,” Khan said.
His supporters roared their approval. Among them was 20-year-old Shams Khan, who came from the northwestern region of Bannu with his friends.
“My blood is boiling today and I want to be martyred,” he said. “If we don’t go into the Red Zone today, I will quit this party tomorrow.” Interior minister Chaudhry Nisar announced earlier the military would co-ordinate the defence of the Red Zone. “The government has decided to hand over the security of the Red Zone of Islamabad to the army,” he said in a news conference.
Three tiers of security had been put in place, he said, using police and government paramilitary forces.
“This challenge to the writ of the state will not be acceptable under any circumstances,” Marvi Memon, a legislator from Sharif’s party, told a news conference. “By entering the Red Zone, what are you trying to prove?” she asked. “You cannot just go and sit on his chair and become Prime Minister.”
Yesterday, Khan also announced his party would resign from their 34 seats in the National Assembly and in all provinces apart from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which borders Afghanistan, is the heartland of the Taliban insurgency.