The Pakistan government on Wednesday struck a deal with a defiant former prime minister Imran Khan to peacefully hold his party's "Azadi March" in Islamabad at the mediation of the powerful army, amid clashes between police and his supporters after authorities blocked off major roads to the capital using dozens of shipping containers and trucks.
The government side led by former premier Yusuf Raza Gilani, former speaker Ayaz Sadiq and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam leader and minister Maulana Asad Mahmood held talks with Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) leaders including former ministers Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Asad Umar and Pervaiz Khattak under the watchful eyes of the army that asked the two sides to sort out their differences, Dunya News channel reported.
It was agreed in the talks, which began at 10 am and went on until 1.30 pm, that the PTI would be allowed to hold the rally in Islamabad and its supporters would return after demonstrating peacefully, the channel reported, citing its sources.
It was also agreed that all roadblocks would be removed and no hurdle would be created by the government for those coming to attend the rally called by Khan to press for the dissolution of the National Assembly and hold fresh elections.
There was no official confirmation of the agreement by either side. The powerful Pakistan Army, which has ruled the coup-prone country for more than half of its nearly 75 years of existence, has hitherto wielded considerable power in the matters of security and foreign policy.
Khan, who was ousted from power last month through a no-trust vote, had apparently lost support of the Army after he refused to endorse the appointment of the ISI spy agency chief last year.
Khan has been claiming that the no-trust motion against him was the result of a “foreign conspiracy” because of his independent foreign policy and funds were being channelled from abroad to oust him from power. He has named the US as the country behind the conspiracy, a charge denied by Washington.
Meanwhile, the 69-year-old cricketer-turned politician said he would go to Islamabad at any cost to hold the promised rally that was earlier banned by the government.
Khan, accompanied by hundreds of his supporters, has been leading the march mounting on a truck. Addressing his supporters at Swabi interchange on M-2 Motorway in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Khan said the "thieves and the servants of America were ruling in Islamabad".
He urged his supporters to remain "peaceful", and said the march would go ahead as per plan to hold the rally at the D-Chowk in Islamabad, which is located close to several important government buildings: the Presidency, the Prime Minister's office, the Parliament, and the Supreme Court.
Earlier in the day, the Supreme Court directed the authorities to provide an alternate place to Khan's party for their protest so that they can demonstrate and then go home.
A three-member bench headed by Justice Ijazul Ahsan, and comprising Justice Munib Akhtar and Justice Sayyed Mazahar Ali Akbar Naqvi made the directions while hearing a petition filed on Tuesday by Islamabad High Court Bar Association (IHCBA) President Mohammad Shoaib Shaheen.
The court ordered the chief commissioner of Islamabad to provide an alternate site for rally to the PTI workers and also create a traffic plan for protesters. "Let them protest and then go home," Justice Ahsan said, adding that the court expected the government "to remove barricades".
The court directed the interior secretary and police to review their policies on road closures. It also asked the administration to get an assurance from the PTI that the protest would be peaceful.
Justice Ahsan said political parties had their own interests but they were secondary to the country and the people.
Authorities had blocked major roads leading to Islamabad using dozens of shipping containers and trucks and arrested several supporters of Khan in a bid to derail the protest march.
The government on Tuesday banned the PTI rally to prevent Khan's supporters from “propagating their misleading agenda".
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s coalition government initially allowed the protest, but on Tuesday refused to give permission, fearing violence and lawlessness in the wake of the march.
On Wednesday, a crackdown started in various cities and police arrested hundreds of PTI workers and some of its leaders to stop them from joining the protest known as “Azadi March”. TV channels showed the police firing teargas and beating Khan's supporters at some places in Punjab province.
The government also imposed Section 144 to ban big gatherings in Punjab's capital Lahore, the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad, and Karachi, as well as other major cities.