Pakistan calls in army to stop protest violence after ex-PM Khan’s arrest

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Islamabad (Reuters) – Pakistan’s government called in the army on Wednesday to help end deadly unrest in the wake of the arrest of former prime minister Imran Khan, warning protesters against any further attacks on state installations.

At least five people have died in violence that has aggravated instability in the South Asian country of 220 million people as it grapples with a severe economic crisis and a delay to an International Monetary Fund bailout since November.

Khan – Pakistan’s most popular political leader according to polls – was arrested in a land fraud case on Tuesday, prompting supporters to storm military buildings and ransack the residence of a top army general in the eastern city of Lahore.

Other state buildings and assets have been attacked and set ablaze by protesters, and the government said on Wednesday it had approved requests 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.

The army issued a statement saying it had shown restraint during earlier violence but any further assaults on the military or law enforcement agencies, state installations and properties “will be met with severe retaliation”.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres wants all parties in Pakistan to refrain from violence and stresses the need to respect the right to peaceful assembly, deputy U.N. spokesperson Farhan Haq said in New York on Wednesday.

Guterres had also urged Pakistani authorities to “respect due process and the rule of law in proceedings” against Khan.

Khan Indicted

As protests raged on the streets, a Pakistani court turned Khan, 70, over to the custody of Pakistan’s anti-graft body, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), for eight days for further questioning, government adviser Ataullah Tarar said.

The former international cricket star is now being held in a police guesthouse in Islamabad.

Another court indicted Khan earlier on Wednesday on charges of selling state gifts during his four years in power, a day after his arrest in the unrelated fraud case.

The indictment followed a decision by the Election Commission of Pakistan in October that found Khan guilty of illegally selling state gifts between 2018 and 2022, and as a result barred him from holding public office until the next election due in November. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Mohsin Shahnawaz Ranjha, a lawmaker from the ruling coalition who was a plaintiff in the case against Khan on state gifts, accused him of putting the “country’s peace at stake”.

Khan’s colleagues in his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party did not immediately respond to a request for comment on his indictment. His legal team has challenged his arrest in the Supreme Court.

Mobile data services were shut for a second day on Wednesday as street protests continued, with federal ministers accusing Khan’s supporters of torching several buildings and vehicles.

Police said they had arrested more than a 1,300 protesters for violence in Khan’s home province of Punjab.

Asad Umar, Khan’s party’s secretary general and Fawad Chaudhry, one of Khan’s aides have also been arrested.

More than 145 policemen have been injured in clashes with protesters, said the police in a statement.

Khan, a cricket hero-turned-politician, was ousted as prime minister in April 2022 in a parliamentary no-confidence vote. He has not slowed his campaign against the ouster even though he was wounded in a November attack on his convoy as he led a protest march to Islamabad calling for snap general elections.

The corruption cases are two of more than 100 registered against Khan after he left office. In most of the cases, Khan faces being barred from holding public office if convicted.

Khan Feud With Military

Khan was arrested a day after the powerful military rebuked him for repeatedly accusing a senior military officer of trying to engineer his assassination and the former armed forces chief of being behind his removal from power last year.

The military has denied Khan’s allegations.

The armed forces remain Pakistan’s most powerful institution, having ruled it directly for close to half its 75-year history through three coups. Despite its major influence it recently said it was no longer interfering in politics.

Amid the turmoil over his arrest, Pakistanis are reeling from the worst economic crisis in decades, with record high inflation and anaemic growth, and the nuclear-armed country faces possible default unless it receives massive support.

An IMF bailout package has been delayed for over six months even though foreign exchange reserves are barely enough to cover a month’s imports.

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