Thousands of supporters of former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan resumed a protest march Thursday on the capital, Islamabad, to push for early elections a week after an assassination attempt on the 70-year-old opposition leader halted the rally.
The so-called “real freedom movement” set off from Wazirabad, the same place in Punjab province where Khan was shot on November 3.
The cricket-star-turned populist politician suffered bullet wounds to his leg and is still recovering at home in the provincial capital, Lahore. The shooting left a member of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PT) party dead and 13 others injured.
Khan addressed the marchers virtually Thursday and reiterated his allegations that Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, along with Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah and Major-General Faisal Naseer, an official in the military-led spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI, had plotted the attack to kill him. Khan again alleged he had information from within Pakistani intelligence agencies that a plot was being hatched to assassinate him.
“I had discovered the assassination plot hatched against me almost two months ago and began exposing it in my public rallies in September,” Khan said. He has offered no evidence and demanded the three men resign to make way for an impartial probe into the attempt on his life.
The Sharif government and military have both rejected the allegations as “baseless and irresponsible.”
Police immediately arrested the suspected shooter, who later in a purportedly leaked video confession said he acted alone.
Khan said in his speech Thursday that subsequent provincial police investigations had concluded there were two assailants, renewing his call for an impartial high-level judicial inquiry into the incident.
Sharif already has written to the country’s chief justice to form a judicial commission to investigate the attack, saying the incident is “being used to make false allegations, spread chaos and undermine institutions.”
The United States and other countries swiftly denounced the attack on Khan, along with the United Nations.
On Tuesday, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price reiterated that violence had no place in politics.
“We are concerned about what has happened in Pakistan in recent days. All parties should never resort to violence,” Price told reporters in Washington. “They should express their disagreements peacefully, using— employing universal rights — freedom of expression, freedom of assembly — but violence is never the answer,” he noted.
The PTI-led slow-moving convoy, in vehicles and on foot, began its 270-kilometer journey from Lahore on October 28, making stops in major towns en route to Islamabad before being suspended in the wake of the shooting incident.
Khan has pledged to join what he calls his “real freedom movement” when the marchers, including women, reach the garrison city of Rawalpindi, adjacent to the Pakistani capital, in about two weeks. He has called on his supporters from across the country to join the main rally before it crosses into Islamabad, where authorities have beefed up security and deployed thousands of police personnel to deter violence.
The former prime minister was removed from power through a parliamentary vote of no-confidence in April. Khan accused the U.S. of toppling his government in collusion with Pakistan’s powerful military and political opponents, without providing any evidence.
Washington and Islamabad deny any role in his removal.
The PTI protest march aims to force Sharif into announcing snap elections in Pakistan. He has rejected the demand as illegal, saying the general elections would be held in October 2023, when the constitutional term of the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, ends.
Khan’s popularity has grown since his ouster. He has been able to mobilize tens of thousands of people at his anti-government rallies across Pakistan, enabling the PTI to sweep recent by-elections for the National Assembly and the Punjab legislature.