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Pakistani police battle protesters in attempt to arrest opposition leader

Supporters of Imran Khan scuffle with riot police outside his house in Lahore on Tuesday to prevent officers from arresting the former prime minister. (Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)
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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Fierce clashes between Pakistani police and supporters of former prime minister Imran Khan around his Lahore residence stretched into a second day Wednesday, leaving many injured before the confrontation was halted by a court order and a cricket match.

The clashes broke out Tuesday when police tried to arrest Khan after he failed to appear last week before a court in the capital, Islamabad, on corruption charges.

The standoff in Lahore highlighted the growing political crisis in the nuclear-armed nation, which has also been racked by an economic crisis, last year’s floods and terrorist attacks. The protests by Khan’s followers spread to the capital as well as the cities of Karachi, Peshawar, Rawalpindi, Quetta, Sialkot and Faisalabad, with reports of many wounded.

Clashes continue on March 15 between Pakistani police and supporters of former prime minister Imran Khan after police tried to arrest the former premier. (Video: TWP)

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In all, the violence outside Khan’s residence lasted more than 20 hours, with Pakistani news channels showing police firing tear-gas shells and using water cannons to disperse activists in Khan’s Movement for Justice party, who responded by throwing stones.

Police finally pulled back in the late afternoon Wednesday, citing the need oversee a major cricket match in the evening. Later, the Lahore High Court issued an order suspending the operation until Thursday morning.

The former prime minister came out of his house early Wednesday to meet his supporters. He called the assault a “brutal and unlawful crackdown.”

He addressed the nation through a video link, a pile of spent tear gas shells by him on his desk. “It’s not just shells, but bullets too are being fired at my residence,” he said. “I was ready to go to jail, and my bags were packed, but my workers stopped me because they knew that ever since we were ousted, our leaders have been subjected to custodial torture. My workers feared the same for me.”

Khan was ousted from power through a parliamentary vote of no confidence last April. Since then, he has been holding huge rallies to pressure the government for new elections. He has also been facing dozens of legal cases, including charges of terrorism and accusations of graft and threatening a female judge.

Khan said he was ready to travel to Islamabad this coming Saturday as required by the arrest warrant, but claimed that police refused his offer.

In a statement, Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb said, “Imran Khan is breaking the law, defying the court orders and using his workers, women and children as human shields.”

Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based analyst, said that while the government insists it is only implementing a court order, the move has to be put in the context of the ongoing political crisis.

“We have an election in the country’s largest Punjab province coming up and you want to take action against the leader of a major opposition party? It will be seen as an action satisfying the agenda of the ruling party,” he said.

Rizvi warned that the brinkmanship between the government and a very “obstinate” Khan could spiral out of the control.

“If this instability persists and the situation is not controlled, then I have doubts that this political system could survive. Then the situation will go out of politicians’ hands,” he warned.

Before the assault on Khan’s home was called off, Taqi Jawwad, a spokesman for the Islamabad police, which spearheaded the operation, said five members of his force, including a senior official, were injured by the protesters’ stones.

Geo News, a local channel, quoted Lahore police as saying about 25 officers were injured. Khan’s party reported that dozens of his supporters were hurt.

By late afternoon, police appeared to pull back from Khan’s residence, and one official said authorities had suspended their operation for now. Speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, he cited the need to ensure security for the Pakistan Super League cricket match in Lahore but said the operation could subsequently resume.

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The arrest warrant was issued when Khan failed to appear before a judge Friday in Islamabad. He is facing charges of illegally selling gifts that he received from foreign dignitaries during his term as prime minister.

He has been avoiding court appearances since November, when he was wounded in a shooting at a protest march in the country’s most populous province, Punjab. He said he was still not medically fit for long journeys.

Khan’s lawyers have taken his surety to appear before the court by Saturday to an Islamabad trial court to get the arrest warrant suspended.