Blood, sweat and tears on Constitution Avenue


ISLAMABAD: On Saturday night, Constitution Avenue — the seat of power in the nation’s capital — became a battlefield as droves of charged Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf and Pakistan Awami Tehreek supporters marched towards the Prime Minister House. The charge was led by Dr Tahirul Qadri and Imran Khan around 9:45pm when both leaders gave supporters their marching orders. But as the protesters rushed towards sensitive buildings, such as the Cabinet Division and the Presidency, they were met with a heavy police contingent, teargas and rubber bullets.

After failing to advance towards the PM House, many protesters gathered in front of the Parliament House and pulled down its gate with the help of a truck.

• Red zone turns into battle zone • Qadri, Imran order supporters to march on PM House together • Protesters breach Parliament House perimeter • Over 100 injured • Police lob teargas, fire rubber bullets

Some of the workers later entered the lawns of Parliament House.

Leaders of both PAT and PTI, meanwhile, remained confined inside their vehicles as the workers battled the police.

“On top of the container with my people as teargas fired directly at us. Cowardly action by the government,” Imran Khan said.

Dr Qadri was, meanwhile, seen in his black bullet-proof SUV.

The interior ministry used helicopters for monitoring the situation.

The resulting melee made the air of D-Chowk thick with the acrid smell of teargas. Sobbing women and children rushed to find cover wherever they could.

Ambulances removed the injured protesters to hospitals that had been put on high alert.

Doctors at the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences and Poly Clinic said 139 injured had been brought to the two hospitals.

Throughout the night, both leaders remained in their containers and headed steadily towards the PM House, urging supporters on. The fence around the Parliament House was breached around midnight and demonstrators poured into the grounds, with security personnel on their heels.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was not in Islamabad. He had travelled to Lahore a day earlier.

ACTING IN UNISON: The virtually simultaneous decision by both camps came at the end of another day of failed talks between the government and the two protesting parties, which have made Prime Minister Sharif’s resignation a pre- condition for any political settlement. Both parties had been dropping hints throughout the day that they would march ahead.

The move to march towards the PM House appeared to be designed to ratchet up pressure on a defiant Nawaz Sharif to step down.

“Today, we will peacefully move this sit-in to in front of the Prime Minister House,” PAT chief Dr Tahirul Qadri said while addressing his workers. In his earlier speech in the evening, he had asked his workers to wind up their tents but didn’t disclose what he planned.

Soon afterwards, PTI Chairman Imran Khan in a speech to his supporters asked them to march towards the PM House. Much like Dr Qadri, he too emphasised on his workers to remain non-violent.

He asked the women to stay behind till the sit-in settled at the new venue.

Both parties had ended their dialogue with the government on Thursday, but began fresh round of talks after the army was involved as a “facilitator” by the government. The stalemate could not, however, be removed despite two additional days of talks as all sides stuck to their guns.

The march towards the PM House was led by PAT workers and PTI marchers followed them. The number of protesters who started marching was estimated to be in thousands.

While there was no immediate word from the government on the marching protesters, a statement issued by the PM House reiterated the government’s stance. “There is no question of resignation or proceeding on leave by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif,” the statement said, quoting an unnamed government spokesman.

Unlike their move into the ‘red zone’ 11 days ago, their march towards the PM House was not uneventful. Led by a crane removing the containers, the baton-wielding marchers covered the first few hundred metres without any obstruction, but were later tear-gassed and baton-charged. Rubber bullets were also fired on the protesters.

The police charge began as some of the protesters tried to break into the Presidency. There were also reports of arrests by police.

Protesters, many of whom were carrying backpacks, retaliated by slinging marbles with their catapults and pelting stones on police.

Fire was seen at a number of places.

Scenes of violent clashes between the protesters and the police were telecast live on television channels.

The security in the area is three-tiered. The police formed the outer cordon followed by the Frontier Constabulary. Army troops have been holding positions inside the buildings.

Talking to a TV channel, PTI chief Imran Khan denounced the police action as “state terrorism” and said “people’s real power would now be shown”.

Defence Minister Khwaja Asif told a TV channel that the army could be directed to act against the protesters.

The army has been stationed in the federal capital since Aug 1 after being requisitioned by the government on the pretext that it was required for security due to ongoing military operation in North Waziristan. Additional troops were deployed on Aug 19 – the day the protesters moved into the red zone from their initial protest site near the city centre.

The defence minister said resolving the issue through negotiations was not possible when violence was taking place.

Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan briefly visited the protest site and met police officials. Talking to media, he said the protesters wanted to occupy important buildings and they would not be allowed to do so.

Army remains quiet: There was no statement on the situation. The ISPR had on the previous occasion of the march towards the red zone on Aug 19 warned the protesters against entering the government premises.

“Buildings in red zone are symbol of state and being protected by the army, therefore, sanctity of these national symbols must be respected,” the army had then said. But, this time round there was no such statement.