Defying an apparent ‘house arrest’, Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) chief Nawaz Sharif began his Long March to Islamabad on Sunday evening.
However, quelling speculations that President Asif Ali Zardari was stepping down, presidential spokesman Farhat-ullah Babar told Dawn News channel: “If the constitution of Pakistan stays, if the country stays, there is no reason for the President to step aside and to resign.” He added there was no possibility of an army takeover.
Accompanied by thousands, Sharif vowed to reach Islamabad on Monday and stage a sit-in at the Constitution Avenue to restore deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.
Interior ministry advisor Rehman Malik said a control room had been set up in Islamabad to deal with the situation. Hundreds of reserve policemen have been brought in to control the protestors.
Although the action has now shifted to Islamabad, hundreds of anti-government protesters fought pitched battles with police in Lahore on Sunday as rumours circulated of Sharif’s arrest. Political activists were nabbed and roads blocked. The government warned protestors they would be arrested under the terrorism act if they continued with their demonstrations.
However, in the evening Malik clarified that there were no restrictions on Sharif’s movement. Those arrested included PML-N leader Makhdoom Javed Hashmi, Qazi Husain Ahmed of the right-wing Jamaat-e-Islami party and Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan, leader of the lawyer movement. In Islamabad, Tehreek Insaf leader Imran Khan reportedly went underground.
Hundreds of lawyers accompanied Sharif’s procession as it made its way from his Model Town Residence to Ichhra and onwards to the toll plaza. Earlier Ahsan said in a statement that even if the government had blocked all roads to Islamabad, “we will sit and protest till the restrictions are lifted.”
Earlier on Sunday, police raided the Rawalpindi house of a local politician on a tip-off that former Punjab CM Shahbaz Sharif was on the premises.
Amid all the confusion, Pakistan’s new information minister told reporters in Islamabad that the government would only file a review petition in the case of the disqualification of the Sharif brothers once the Supreme Court gave a detailed judgement.
Islamabad looked like a city under siege. Movement was restricted owing to the huge presence of law enforcement personnel screening everyone entering the city. Roadblocks were erected and the police patrolled streets and checked hotels to nab any possible protestors.
The lawyers, however, remained defiant. Athar Minallah, a spokesman for the lawyer movement, said in Islamabad that all plans were in place for a sit-in on the Constitution Avenue on Monday.