HHundreds of police equipped with tear gas hastily took up position near a junction linking Islamabad to its twin city of Rawalpindi as a group of protesters burned wood and chanted slogans on Friday.
The two groups closed in, then the demonstrators threw stones at the police, who responded with tear gas canisters. Soon after, protesters dispersed and police reopened the intersection to traffic.
The brief flashpoint was one of many in cities across Pakistan – including Lahore and Karachi – as Imran Khan’s supporters took to the streets after an assassination attempt on the former Prime Minister.
The attack on Khan’s convoy on Thursday killed one man and injured at least 10, dramatically raising the stakes in a political crisis that has gripped the South Asian nation since Khan was ousted from power in April.
In a rambling speech delivered from a wheelchair in Lahore hospital on Friday, Khan accused his successor, Shehbaz Sharif, Home Minister Rana Sanaullah and a senior army commander of being involved in a plot to kill him. “These three decided to kill me,” Khan said in his first public appearance since Thursday’s attack, adding that two gunmen were involved.
He has provided no evidence for his claims and the government has denied any involvement, blaming the attempted assassination of a gunman fueled by religious extremism. Sharif led a coalition of parties that removed Khan from power in a parliamentary vote in April.
Eighteen-year-old Ali Sher was among the protesters chanting, “What do we want? Freedom” in Rawalpindi on Friday. “We want freedom from corrupt politicians and we will not leave until Shehbaz Sharif resigns,” he said, waving a flag with Khan’s picture on it.
Echoing Khan’s comments, Sher claimed Sharif was behind the attack as part of what he described as a plot to keep Khan out of office. “They wanted to kill him, but his attack is not going to kill our spirit of freedom,” Sher said.
Khan, 70, a former international cricket star, had been leading a convoy of thousands from Lahore to the capital Islamabad since last week. Khan was watching the crowd when bullets were sprayed at his modified container truck as he slowly drove through a thick crowd in Wazirabad, about 105 miles east of Islamabad.
On Friday, he reiterated a call for new elections, adding: “Revolution will come, whether with peace or with bloodshed…I will call for the march to Islamabad as soon as I am fully recovered.”
Khan said he was shot four times, twice in each leg. A doctor who was in the room with him said Khan was hit twice in the right thigh and twice in the left thigh, and his left tibia was fractured.
Noor Khan, a trader who had traveled a few hours from Nowshera to join the Rawalpindi protest, said: “I don’t know much about politics but… Imran Khan, whatever he says, he is always right and I am. I don’t care about my life, I will always follow Khan.
“There are also protests in Nowshera, but I came here to protest what happened to Khan and overthrow this government.”
In the eastern city of Lahore, large groups of protesters burned tires and blocked major roads. They also gathered outside the fortified office of the governor of Punjab province and pelted the gate with stones, destroying security cameras and barriers. Protesters also blocked roads in the city of Peshawar in the northwest and in Karachi in the south. Since being forced out of office, Khan has rallied to demand a snap election. He began a march to Islamabad last week after Pakistan’s Election Commission disqualified him from holding public office for five years for allegedly illegally selling state gifts and concealing assets. He has challenged the disqualification in court and is awaiting a decision.
Sharif’s government has made it clear that elections will take place according to schedule in 2023 and there will be no snap elections.
Khan accused the powerful Pakistani military and the United States of ousting him in April, which both deny.
Shah Khalid, another Khan supporter in Rawalpindi, said the military should stop intervening in politics. “There must be civilian supremacy in the country,” he said. “The future of this country should be decided by the masses, not by conspiracies and the military. That’s enough.”
A soldier deployed from the Pakistani border to maintain order at the protest site, who did not want to be named, urged Khan and Sharif to sit down and negotiate in order to “stabilize” the situation. “They should take a path of reconciliation,” he said. “This madness must stop.”
Agence France-Presse and Reuters contributed to this report