By Alasdair Pal
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Thousands of anti-government protesters blocked highways across Pakistan on Thursday in a bid to oust prime minister Imran Khan, though the disruption fell short of what organisers had planned.
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.
Thousands of supporters reached the capital Islamabad on Oct. 31, holding a two-week sit-in on the city’s main highway. Rehman ordered them to disperse across the country on Wednesday to cripple key roads, in what he called ‘Plan B’ to topple Khan over allegations of voter fraud and economic mismanagement – claims he denies. [L4N27T3QR]
On Thursday protesters blocked the Grand Trunk Road between Islamabad and Afghanistan’s capital Kabul, causing lengthy delays, according to Reuters witnesses.
“Until our leaders announce otherwise we will remain here,” said Mufti Owais Aziz, one of several hundred party activists blocking the highway.
Similar disruption was reported in Jacobabad, a city in Sindh linking the province with Balochistan and Punjab, a senior police officer told Reuters.
But authorities were able to divert traffic in several affected areas and there were no reports of protesters occupying other routes like the Karakoram Highway to China, one of nearly a dozen targets announced by the party on Wednesday evening.
The government is confident it can weather the protests, the first such challenge to Khan’s leadership since his election on a platform of anti-corruption and economic reform last year.
Fawad Chaudhury, a minister in Khan’s cabinet, told a press conference on Thursday the Islamabad sit-in had been “unsuccessful”.
“The religious politics of the country have been damaged by this protest,” he said.
The protests come during a time of economic strain for the nation of more than 200 million.
Khan’s 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 Alasdair Pal; Additional reporting by Syed Raza Hassan and Salahuddin in Islamabad; Editing by Giles Elgood)