Pakistan’s ex-PM Khan vows to fight on in first rally since being shot

Supporters of the Pakistan's former prime minister Imran Khan gathering to see their leader in his first public appearance since him being wounded in a gun attack earlier this month. PHOTO: REUTERS

Rawalpindi, Pakistan - Pakistan’s former prime minister Imran Khan told tens of thousands of supporters on Saturday that he would fight with his “last drop of blood”, in a first public address since being shot in an assassination attempt earlier this month.

The shooting was the latest twist in months of political turmoil that began in April, when Mr Khan was ousted by a vote of no confidence in Parliament.

Saturday’s rally was the climax of a so-called “long march” by Mr Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party to press the government to call a snap election before Parliament’s term expires in October 2023.

“I have seen death from up close,” said Mr Khan, who hobbled to the stage with a walking frame to speak to supporters from a plush seat behind a panel of bulletproof glass.

“I’m more worried about the freedom of Pakistan than my life,” he told the crowd. “I will fight for this country until my last drop of blood.”

The rally was squeezed onto a motorway in Rawalpindi, a garrison city neighbouring the capital Islamabad and home to the headquarters of the country’s powerful military.

Mr Khan said he was calling off his protest march to Islamabad because he feared it would cause havoc in the country.

“I have decided not to go to Islamabad because I know there will be havoc and the loss will be to the country,” Mr Khan said.

Mr Saghir Ahmed, a 32-year-old tailor, was among thousands arriving in the long build-up to Mr Khan’s speech atop a platform draped with banners depicting a clenched fist breaking shackles.

Having shut his shop to attend, Mr Ahmed said Pakistan’s dire economic situation – with galloping inflation and a nosediving rupee – has made life “unbearable”.

“We hope Khan will introduce some reforms and the situation will improve,” he said.

Mr Khan attracts cultlike devotion from supporters, but on Saturday made his speech hundreds of metres from the bulk of the crowd of around 25,000 to 30,000, separated by coils of barbed wire and a buffer of police officers.

In the Nov 3 assassination attempt, a gunman opened fire from close range as Mr Khan’s open-top container lorry made its way through a crowded street.

Tight security was in place for Mr Khan’s appearance on Saturday. A police official told local television channel Geo TV that a total of 10,000 personnel had been deployed for the event.

Buildings overlooking the site of the rally were searched overnight, a police official said, while snipers were perched on rooftops surveying the mostly male supporters whipping red and green flags back and forth.

Mr Khan himself was surrounded by a crush of bodyguards at all times, while mobile phone signals were jammed in the vicinity.

The authorities threw a ring of steel around Islamabad to prevent his supporters from marching on government buildings, with thousands of security personnel deployed and roads blocked by shipping containers.

Khan-led protests in May spiralled into 24 hours of chaos, with the capital blockaded and running clashes across Pakistan between police and protesters.

Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah – who Mr Khan accuses of being involved in his assassination plot – issued a “red alert” on Friday, warning of security threats to the rally. He listed Pakistan’s Taliban and Al-Qaeda among the extremist groups that could harm Mr Khan.

The government says the assassination attempt was the work of a lone wolf now in custody, with police leaking a “confession” video by the junk-shop owner saying he acted because Mr Khan was against Islam.

But Mr Khan, a former international cricket player with a playboy reputation before he married, said he has long warned that the government would blame a religious fanatic for any attempt to kill him.

Without offering evidence, Mr Khan has named Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, Mr Sanaullah, and a senior military officer of being the architects of the assassination attempt – charges they have all dismissed as lies.

Saturday’s rally took place two days after the government named a former spymaster as the next military chief. General Syed Asim Munir’s appointment ended months of speculation over a position long considered the real power in the nuclear-armed Islamic nation of 220 million people.

Mr Munir served as chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency under Mr Khan, but his stint ended after just eight months following a reported falling out.

Pakistan’s military, the world’s sixth-largest, is hugely influential in the country and has staged at least three coups since independence in 1947, ruling for more than three decades. AFP, REUTERS

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