Pakistan deploys army to quell riots over ex-PM Khan’s arrest

A supporter of former Prime Minister Imran Khan hits an armored police vehicle in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad – Copyright AFP Saeed KHAN

Troops deployed to the Pakistani capital on Thursday after the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan sparked two days of violent protests by his supporters.

Khan was remanded for eight days on corruption charges on Wednesday, the culmination of a rare campaign of defiance against the powerful military.

Khan’s arrest angered supporters of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, who clashed with security forces in several cities and marched on army headquarters.

Khan’s supporters accuse the army of orchestrating Khan’s ouster in April last year. The army denies any involvement.

“If they think that the arrest of Imran Khan will demoralize us, then they are sorely mistaken,” protester Niaz Ali said on Wednesday in Peshawar, where several monuments and government buildings were set on fire.

“We support Imran Khan and we will support him to death.”

At least seven officials from PTI’s central leadership have been arrested and detained on charges of orchestrating the protests, Islamabad police said early Thursday.

The government on Wednesday approved the deployment of the army in two provinces – including Punjab, the most populous – and in the capital to restore peace.

Islamabad police said the troops had already entered the capital’s sensitive ‘red zone’, where government buildings are located.

Security forces fired tear gas to disperse PTI supporters in several cities, including the port megacity of Karachi.

At least six people have been killed in protest-related incidents, police and hospitals reported.

Hundreds of policemen have been injured across Pakistan, while in Punjab province, more than 1,000 people have been arrested.

The Interior Ministry has ordered the shutdown of mobile Internet services and restricted access to social networking sites Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, Pakistan’s communications agency said.

The authorities also ordered the closure of schools across the country, with the cancellation of end-of-year exams.

Khan appeared before a specially convened corruption court on Wednesday, which kept him in pretrial detention for eight days following a request by Pakistan’s top anti-corruption agency, Ali Bukhari, one of his lawyers, told AFP.

– ‘Extreme restraint’ –

The events marked a dramatic escalation in a political crisis that has been brewing for months, during which Khan has waged his unprecedented campaign against the military with almost fanatical support.

Pakistani politicians have been frequently arrested and imprisoned since the country’s founding in 1947.

But few have so directly challenged an army that has staged at least three coups and ruled for more than three decades.

Khan, a former cricket superstar, remains wildly popular and has said the dozens of cases brought against him after his ouster are part of a hard-pressed government and military effort to prevent him from returning to power.

Criticism of the military establishment is rare in Pakistan, where army chiefs have significant influence over domestic and foreign policy, and the scenes from this week were once considered inconceivable.

Khan’s arrest came hours after he was reprimanded by the military for alleging that a senior official was involved in a plot to assassinate him. The army denied the accusation.

The military issued a strong statement on Wednesday saying it was exercising “extreme restraint.”

“In their lust for power, this group has done what the eternal enemies of the country could not do for 75 years,” the statement said.

He warned of a “severe reaction” to any further attacks on state and military installations, and that the responsibility for that would fall on “a group that wants to push Pakistan into civil war.”

Khan’s party dismissed the statement as “contrary to the facts and the situation on the ground.”

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Wednesday called on all parties to the crisis to refrain from violence.

Pakistan is deep in an economic and political crisis, with Khan campaigning for early elections while the government is burdened by security and economic turmoil.

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