Pakistani authorities have taken senior leaders of former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s party into custody as the government calls out the army to help end widespread and deadly protests sparked by Khan’s arrest.
At least three party leaders have been arrested so far, one from outside the Supreme Court late on Wednesday and another, a foreign minister in Khan’s cabinet, early on Thursday.
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Tensions remained high in the nuclear-armed nation with paramilitary troops and police on the streets in major cities on Thursday.
The Islamabad police said early on Thursday that troops have reached the capital city of Islamabad.
Mobile data services remained suspended and schools and offices were closed in two of Pakistan’s four provinces.
Protesters have stormed military buildings, ransacked the residence of a top army general in the eastern city of Lahore, and set ablaze state buildings and assets in other places since Khan’s arrest by the anti-graft agency on Tuesday in a land fraud case.
At least five people have died in the violence that has aggravated instability in the South Asian country of 220 million people as it grapples with a severe economic crisis and eroding hopes of a quick resumption of International Monetary Fund bailout funds.
“Such a spectacle has never been witnessed in the last 75 years,” Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said in a televised address on Wednesday. “People were made hostages in their vehicles, patients were taken out of the ambulances and later, those vehicles were torched”.
Authorities arrested Shah Mahmood Qureshi, a former foreign minister and vice chairman of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party early on Thursday, a statement on his Twitter profile said.
Meanwhile, the Chief Minister of Gilgit-Baltistan Khalid Khurshid, a PTI member, has been placed under “house arrest” in Islamabad, according to the party’s social media account.
Two other senior PTI leaders, Asad Umar and Fawad Chaudhry, were arrested on Wednesday, the latter from outside the Supreme Court minutes after he spoke to reporters. The party has challenged Khan’s arrest at the top court.
“There is a very real propaganda campaign against PTI, attempting to position us as violent creators of terror,” a statement on Qureshi’s Twitter profile quoted him as saying.
“The nation must continue with peaceful protests wherever they can”.
The federal government approved requests on Wednesday from two of Pakistan’s four provinces – Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, both Khan strongholds – and the federal capital Islamabad to deploy troops to restore order.
Police have arrested more than 1,650 protesters in Khan’s home province of Punjab for violence, the police chief’s office said in a statement.
Some 80 workers of Khan’s party were also arrested in the southwestern city of Quetta, police said.
Separately, Khan was indicted by a Pakistani court in an unrelated case on Wednesday for unlawfully selling state gifts during his premiership between 2018 and 2022.
The corruption cases against Khan are two of more than 100 cases registered against him since his ouster in April 2022 in a parliamentary no confidence vote.
In most of the cases, Khan faces being barred from holding public office if convicted, with a national election scheduled for November.
He has not slowed his campaign against the ouster even after being wounded in a November attack on his convoy as he led a protest march to Islamabad calling for snap general elections.