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Thousands of anti-government marchers reach Islamabad

Thousands of protesters led by Pakistan's opposition leader Imran Khan on Saturday (Aug 16) arrived in the capital Islamabad to try to topple the government he alleges was elected by fraud.

ISLAMABAD: Thousands of protesters led by Pakistan's opposition leader Imran Khan on Saturday (Aug 16) arrived in the capital Islamabad to try to topple the government he alleges was elected by fraud.

Cricketer-turned-politician Khan says the May 2013 general election that brought Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to power in a landslide was rigged, and has demanded he resign and hold new polls.

"The time has arrived when the nation should decide. I will stay here until the prime minister resigns. We don't accept a prime minister who has been appointed after rigged elections," Khan told supporters in the early hours of Saturday after arriving in the capital. "We went to the election commission and the supreme court against the rigging in the elections. When we could not get justice, then we decided that there is no other way but to come on roads to get justice."

A populist cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri also led thousands of his followers alongside Khan in his own march on the capital to force the Sharif government to step down. Both Khan and Qadri plan to rally in Islamabad until their demands for Sharif's resignation and for electoral reforms are met.

The demonstration in Islamabad is the culmination of the "long march" - in reality a motorised cavalcade - which set off on Thursday from the eastern city of Lahore, around 300 kilometres (190 miles) away. The marchers took more than 36 hours to reach the capital as convoys made stopovers in various cities along the road where they were warmly welcomed.

Police and witnesses said earlier on Friday that activists from Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party clashed with supporters of Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) in the town of Gujranwala, some 200 kilometres (120 miles) southeast of Islamabad.

Khan said shots were fired on his march, telling ARY television news: "They threw stones at us...They fired bullets at us." However, police said there were no shots and an AFP photographer at the scene also heard no gunfire.

"Workers of PTI and PML-N clashed in Gujranwala and threw stones at each other," a police spokeswoman told AFP. "There was no firing incident," she added. The AFP photographer said a group of up to 40 youths who were following the convoy and shouting slogans clashed with workers from Khan's party before being dispersed by police.

Marvi Memon, a PMLN member of parliament and spokeswoman, said the events in Gujranwala were "regrettable" but said there was no shooting and her party's workers had been provoked by what she called Khan and Qadri's "violent speeches".

Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, the premier's brother, ordered an investigation into the clashes and appealed for calm.

Supporters of PTI, which came third in last year's election, lined up to welcome the convoy in towns along the Grand Trunk Road which links Lahore and Islamabad. Exact numbers for the march have not been confirmed, organisers expect to get a clearer figure once participants assemble all together in Islamabad.

But Khan has already hailed it a success and put crowd figures at a million. "I can only see that the 'monarchy' is nearing its end," Khan said, referring to Sharif. "The people have decided. I said one million people will come to Islamabad, and they have come out."

SLOW PROGRESS

Both Khan and Qadri had originally planned for their marches to converge on Islamabad on Thursday, Pakistan's independence day, but they made slow progress. By Friday evening Khan's march was slowed to a snail's pace by PTI well-wishers, a photographer said.

Security in Islamabad was ramped up in recent days, with more than 20,000 police and security forces on the streets. The government has agreed to allow the two groups to hold rallies but many of the city's streets are blocked off with shipping containers to protect sensitive areas.

Around 5,000-7,000 PTI supporters, mostly from northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, gathered in the capital in preparation for the arrival of the march. There was a festive mood, with many dancing, singing and waving party flags, despite a torrential monsoon downpour. young workers were seen installing huge loudspeakers and floodlights at the venue.

‘EFFORT TO DERAIL DEMOCRACY’

Government officials have accused march organisers of trying to derail democracy and Sharif said the marches were a distraction from more pressing issues.

Memon, the PMLN spokeswoman, said Khan had ignored constitutional routes to address his grievances, including an offer by Sharif to set up a judicial commission to investigate rigging allegations.

"All his efforts are undemocratic and unconstitutional and an effort to derail democracy," she said.

Pakistan is waging a military offensive against Taliban hideouts in the northwest, while also trying to boost a sagging economy and solve a chronic power supply crisis. Highlighting the fragile security situation facing the nuclear-armed state, militants attacked two airbases in the southwestern city of Quetta on Thursday, with 12 attackers killed by security forces.

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