Authorities in Pakistan’s Punjab province on Wednesday stepped up their efforts to arrest former prime minister Imran Khan in a corruption case and deployed the elite Rangers outside his residence here, a day after clashes with police left over 60 people injured, including 54 policemen.
Lahore’s Zaman Park area has turned into a battleground after 70-year-old Khan’s defiant supporters engaged in pitched battles with policemen on Tuesday to stop them from arresting their leader in the Toshakhana case, resulting in injuries on both sides.
The injured were shifted to Lahore’s hospitals and police arrested dozens of Khan’s supporters.
Citing hospital sources, Geo News reported that at least 54 policemen and eight civilians were injured in the clashes that have been ongoing since Tuesday afternoon. Khan’s supporters clashed repeatedly with police overnight.
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The upscale area where Khan lives remained under siege on Wednesday as the government sent Rangers to aid police teams who struggled on Tuesday to muscle their way through a ring of enraged Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) supporters to arrest Khan.
The police, with their riot gear on, closed in on Khan’s home in order to comply with the court orders to arrest him in the Toshakhana case.
Khan has been in the crosshairs for buying gifts, including an expensive Graff wristwatch he had received as the premier at a discounted price from the state depository called Toshakhana and selling them for profit.
In a video address to the nation from his residence, Khan said on Wednesday that he has asked the military establishment to end this ‘tamasha’ (drama)”.
The Pakistani TV channels did not broadcast Khan’s speech. His party said the media blackout the speech’s coverage on the order from the ”top”.
”My house has been under heavy attack since yesterday afternoon. Latest attack by Rangers, pitting the largest political party against the army. This is what PDM and the enemies of Pakistan want. No lessons learnt from the East Pakistan tragedy,” he said, referring to the creation of Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) in 1971.
Khan said he had prepared his bag to go to jail but his party workers didn’t allow him to surrender, fearing a threat to his life in police custody and put up strong resistance.
”The workers have fear for my life seeing what had happened to slain journalist Arshad Sharif, PTI leaders Azam Swati and Shehbaz Gill in police custody. They think that I will be tortured and killed in custody because those involved in an attempt on my life are in power,” he said.
Khan equated the police and Rangers ‘attack’ on his residence to Jammu and Kashmir. ”I wonder how come the Rangers are taking part in this operation. It is a conspiracy to put the people of Pakistan against its army,” he said.
He said he never had witnessed this kind of police attack and brutality against any political leader in Pakistan. ”I asked for the Toshakhana case to be transferred to a court with adequate security but arrest warrants were issued for me. It is unprecedented that an ex-prime minister has been refused security and is being attacked,” he lambasted.
As Rangers and police intensified the operation, the Punjab caretaker government expressed the hope that Khan would be arrested soon. ”Clearly ‘arrest’ claim was mere drama because the real intent is to abduct & assassinate. From tear gas & water cannons, they have now resorted to firing. I signed a surety bond last evening, but the DIG refused to even entertain it. There is no doubt of their mala fide intent,” Khan tweeted on Wednesday.
Khan’s party has challenged the police operation in the Lahore High Court, requesting it to direct the government to end it. His party on Tuesday moved the Islamabad High Court against the arrest warrants issued in the Toshakhana case. The IHC Chief Justice Aamer Farooq fixed the hearing for Wednesday.
As the Rangers joined the ‘Arrest Imran Khan Operation’, the PTI claimed that live bullets were being fired at the party workers present on the roads leading to Khan’s residence.
”After our workers & leadership faced police onslaught since yesterday morning of tear gas, cannons with chemical water, rubber bullets & live bullets this morning; we now have Rangers taking over & are now in direct confrontation with the people,” Khan tweeted.
”My question to the Establishment, to those who claim they are ‘neutral’: Is this your idea of neutrality, Rangers directly confronting unarmed protestors & ldrship of largest pol party when their ldr is facing an illegal warrant & case already in court & when govt of crooks trying to abduct & possibly murder him?” he wrote in a series of tweets on Wednesday.
In an interview with the BBC Urdu, Khan said it seemed the alleged promises made to PML-N supreme leader Nawaz Sharif by the military establishment were being kept.
”I don’t understand why the establishment and the army chief are backing the PDM government even though it is damaging the reputation of the state institution (army),” he said.
Khan said the PML-N government led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif would not last a single day without the crutches of the establishment.
”There are no attempts to get in touch with Army Chief Gen Asim Munir,” he said.
Talking about the clashes that ensued after the operation started, Khan said police came ”all of a sudden” to arrest him without informing him.
”I am all mentally prepared that I am going to spend my night in a cell and I don’t know how many nights. I am all prepared for that. But I think they are determined [this time] and they want me behind bars,” he was quoted as saying by Geo News.
Fearing the worst, various PTI leaders — including Khan himself — Tuesday appealed to party workers to rush to Zaman Park, where they served as human shields and stood between Khan’s residence and the police.
The police fired tear gas shells but were met with resistance and found PTI workers undeterred.
For more than 11 hours, PTI workers engaged capital police in pitched battles that continued late into the night.
As night fell in Lahore, the PTI workers had gained the upper hand — not only had it opened more fronts across the city, the influx of a large number of supporters into Zaman Park forced security men to retreat. By midnight, police had suffered around 30 casualties.
At a late-night meeting summoned by the Punjab interim chief minister Mohsin Naqvi to take stock of the security situation, it was decided to make another bid to detain the PTI chief and wrap up the operation before the morning.
In a late-night tweet, PTI leader Asad Umar said the president of the Lahore High Court Bar Association had assured that Khan would appear in the court on March 18.
In light of the undertaking, there was “no justification” for the police operation, he added.
Khan, in a video message on Tuesday, asked his supporters to ”come out” to fight for real freedom and continue the struggle even if he is killed or arrested. Soon after Khan’s speech, protests broke out also in Islamabad, Karachi, Peshawar, Faisalabad, Sargodha, Vehari, Quetta, and Mianwali.
The PTI has declared that it would not let law enforcement agencies arrest Khan as it fears he may be given poison in jail.
Khan was ousted from power in April last year after losing a no-confidence vote, which he alleged was part of a US-led conspiracy targeting him because of his independent foreign policy decisions on Russia, China and Afghanistan.
Since his ouster, Khan has been asking for early elections to oust what he termed an ”imported government” led by prime minister Shehbaz Sharif.
Sharif has maintained that elections will be held later this year once the parliament completes its five-year tenure.