Violent clashes, arrests, and road blockades virtually crippled life in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad and the adjoining garrison city Friday days before a planned “siege” of the capital by the country’s second-largest opposition party.
Riot police fired volleys of teargas, and baton charged the rock-throwing activists of Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI), led by cricket hero Imran Khan, and its allied parties in several parts of Islamabad and adjoining Rawalpindi in a successful bid to stop them from holding a pre-siege gathering.
Amid the unrest, a newborn died of suffocation due to teargas shelling in Rawalpindi, local ARY TV reported, and several journalists were also injured.
Giant plumes of thick smoke wafted upwards as the opposition activists burned tires and wooden material outside Khan’s residence, which was besieged by contingents of police and paramilitary troops, and several other parts of the twin cities, which sparked countrywide protests.
Khan told reporters that he had practically been put under house arrest along with several other party leaders in an attempt to foil his planned siege, but added that he and his supporters would go ahead with his plan “despite the government’s coercive actions”.
Infuriated opposition activists pelted the police with stones in a hide-and-seek exercise throughout the day, while the administration, for its part, placed containers at several entry and exit points, cutting off the twin cities from the rest of the country.
According to the local media, law enforcement agencies have detained around 500 opposition activists, over 250 on Friday alone, in various parts of the country, mainly from Islamabad and Rawalpindi, as the government vowed to stop the PTI and its allies from locking down the capital.
Police briefly took the country’s famous pop star Salman Ahmad into custody when he was trying to reach Khan’s sprawling residence located on the outskirts of Islamabad. He was later released at the intervention of higher government officials, a statement from Islamabad police said.
The Islamabad High Court on Thursday issued orders forbidding both the government and the PTI from blocking the capital in the name of security or protest on Nov. 2, and summoned Khan to appear before the court on Monday, Oct. 31 in his personal capacity.
The PTI, however, said it would challenge the high court judgment in the Supreme Court.
Angry PTI workers, meanwhile, took to the streets in scores of cities, including Karachi, Lahore, Multan, Peshawar, and others against the police action, blocking the roads and burning tires. Scores of party workers staged a sit-in at the Governor House in the commercial capital Karachi for several hours, causing massive traffic jams.
The PTI and its allies planned the siege if Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif failed to agree to an independent inquiry into corruption allegations emerging from the Panama Papers leaks earlier this year.
Sharif has been under pressure from opposition parties and the media after the leak revealed that his two sons Hassan Nawaz and Hussain Nawaz and his daughter Mariyam Nawaz owned offshore companies.
The country's Supreme Court last week issued notices to Sharif, his two sons, his daughter and a son-in-law on five separate petitions seeking investigations into the allegations.
Khan has said, however, that he will go ahead with the protest despite the legal proceedings.