ISLAMABAD — Thousands of Pakistani opposition supporters, some armed with sticks and wire cutters, marched toward a fortified zone in the center of Islamabad on Tuesday to press their demands for the resignation of the prime minister.
The protesters, who have been camped out in the capital since Friday, are led by Imran Khan, the former cricketer, and a charismatic cleric named Muhammad Tahir-ul Qadri, who run separate campaigns but are united in their opposition to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
The march on the city’s “red zone” — an area that contains the Parliament, the prime minister’s official residence, and many Western embassies — was widely seen as a final effort by Khan to rally his support base after days of threats and political rhetoric.
Although Khan’s crusade attracted a crowd in Islamabad that was smaller, it received a major lift on Tuesday when his supporters merged with Qadri’s, forming a crowd that the police estimated at more than 40,000 people marching into the red zone.
As participants started toward the Parliament building, television pictures showed a crane on the street that was apparently used to remove shipping containers impeding their way.
Sharif’s government, which came to power in June 2013, has struggled to quell the escalating political crisis, partly as a result of Sharif’s tense relationship with the Pakistani army leadership.
In recent days, Sharif’s administration failed to engage Khan and Qadri in negotiations to end the standoff and appeared to be hoping that the protests would simply fade.
But there was little sign of that Tuesday, as Khan and Qadri gave impassioned speeches before sending their followers toward the city’s protected area, which was ringed by shipping containers and thousands of police and paramilitary officers.
In his speech before a cheering crowd, Khan repeatedly attacked Sharif, whom he accuses of stealing the 2013 election through vote rigging, and challenged him to a “duel.”
Describing the prime minister as a thief and a corrupt politician, Khan vowed to turn the space outside the Parliament into “a Tahrir Square,” a reference to the site of the 2011 uprising in Egypt. While instructing his jubilant supporters to remain peaceful, he repeatedly warned of the possibility of violence.
“Nawaz Sharif,” he told the crowd, directly addressing the prime minister. “If there is any violence, I will not leave you.” Moments later, when a helicopter hovered nearby, Khan said it had come to “take away Sharif,” drawing a roar of approval.
Police officials estimated the crowd at between 40,000 and 50,000 people. As participants headed toward the Parliament, television images showed a crane on the street that was apparently being used to remove shipping containers impeding their way.
The government said that 30,000 security forces had been deployed to protect the red zone, which includes the US Embassy. Witnesses said they could not see evidence of such a large contingent, but the army said in a statement that it had deployed 700 soldiers to protect the Parliament, the Supreme Court, and other sensitive buildings inside the area.
The decision to deploy army troops was taken after a meeting between Sharif and the army chief, General Raheel Sharif, who is not related to the prime minister. “The army is not behind anyone,” said Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the Pakistani interior minister, at a press briefing earlier in the day.