By Syed Raza Hassan
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Anti-government protesters in Pakistan blocked a key highway linking the country to Afghanistan on Wednesday, as part of what they called the “second phase” of action aimed at ousting Prime Minister Imran Khan.
The protests, led by Fazl-ur-Rehman, head of the conservative Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (F) party, began with the “Azadi” (freedom) March on Oct. 27 from the southern city of Karachi.
Tens of thousands of protesters reached the capital Islamabad on Oct. 31, where they have been holding a sit-in on its main highway demanding Khan’s resignation and a fresh election, over allegations of electoral fraud and mismanagement of the economy – accusations the government denies.
JUI-F workers holding party flags blocked the Quetta–Chaman highway in the west of the country with a sit-in on Wednesday, resulting in a long queue of trucks laden with goods, footage from private news channels showed.
“I announce ‘Plan B’ from tomorrow,” Rehman said in a speech to supporters in Islamabad on Tuesday night.
The plan envisages blocking several of Pakistan’s highways and eventually a countrywide lockdown, Akram Durrani, a senior figure in JUI-F, previously told reporters.
Rehman is a veteran politician who can mobilize significant support in religious circles across the country. His campaign is the first concerted opposition challenge that cricket star-turned-politician Khan has faced since he won a general election last year, promising to end corruption and create jobs for the poor.
The protests come as the government is battling high inflation and a sluggish economy.
Khan ran on a platform of economic reform, but his government – like many of its predecessors – was forced to turn to the International Monetary Fund for a $6 billion bailout in July.
The opposition says Khan’s government is illegitimate and is being propped up by the military, which has ruled Pakistan for about half of its history and sets security and foreign policy.
The military denies meddling in politics and Khan has dismissed the calls to step down.
(Reporting by Syed Raza Hassan in Islamabad; Editing by Alasdair Pal and Alex Richardson)