An Islamabad police team that arrived to arrest Imran Khan on Tuesday faced fierce resistance from PTI supporters, who converged on Zaman Park to protect their chairman from arrest, braving tear gas and water cannons to keep the police party at bay.
For more than 11 hours, PTI workers engaged capital police — aided by their Punjab counterparts and later Rangers personnel — in pitched battles that continued late into the night.
As night fell in Lahore, the PTI had gained an upper hand — not only had it opened more fronts across the city, the influx of a large number of supporters into Zaman Park forced security men to retreat. By midnight, police had suffered around 30 casualties. Geo News reported that at least 15 PTI men had also been detained by police.
At a late-night meeting summoned by the Punjab interim chief minister to take stock of the security situation in the provincial capital, it was decided to make another bid to detain the PTI chief and wrap up the operation before the morning.
In order to set the plan in motion, fresh units of police and Rangers took positions on The Mall in the early hours of Wednesday. Soon, a few prison vans followed, along with Rescue 1122 vehicles.
As the date shifted to the ominous ides of March, the city was abuzz that the police high-ups have realised the “mistake” of paddling too softly during the day, compromising the entire operation. “The next effort, designed to be strong and brisk, may come any time during the night, but it will come for sure,” one of the Punjab officials said.
It was understood that law enforcement would make a late-night attempt to break the impasse, although no such action had been taken at the time of going to print.
In the same vein, Punjab police chief Usman Anwar fired a warning shot and said anti-terror charges would be invoked against those inciting PTI workers to target the police contingent.
“Police were following the court orders during the today; nothing else. But those inciting their workers to attack the police team need to realise the magnitude of their crime. This is simply terrorism as defined by the law,” he said, adding that the police would now go after those inciting violence against state institutions and those acting on it.
In a late-night tweet, PTI leader Asad Umar said the president of the Lahore High Court Bar Association had assured that Imran Khan would appear in the court on the 18th. In light of the undertaking signed under Section 76 of CrPC, there was “no justification” for the police operation, he added.
Operation at Zaman Park
The operation to ‘execute arrest warrants’ issued by a court in Islamabad started in the afternoon, when policemen made their way towards the residence of Mr Khan in an armoured personnel carrier.
Led by Islamabad DIG Shahzad Nadeem Bukhari, police used water cannons and teargas to disperse party supporters who resisted. The PTI workers, however, responded with stones.
The police team was determined to complete the operation. DIG Bukhari, who was subsequently injured, expressed in clear terms, “We are here to arrest Imran Khan and it will be done today at all costs.”
PTI survived the first phase of the operation by offering the possibility of volunteered arrest — a delaying tactic since more supporters thronged the scene as time passed by.
“We have asked police to deliver us arrest warrants,” Shah Mahmood Qureshi addressed the media following a parley with the DIG.
“I will read the warrant, decipher them, and take them to my chairman (Imran Khan) and lawyers. Our understanding is that Imran Khan is on protective bail and cannot be arrested. But if the police party is able to convince us, we may volunteer arrest to avoid violence.”
However, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Ali Zaidi, and Ijaz Chaudhry, who held negotiations, went inside Mr Khan’s residence and did not come back.
In another push to detain Mr Khan, DIG Bukhari and four of his subordinates received injuries and landed in Services Hospital. The operation, however, continued with Islamabad SP City Rana Tahir taking charge of the police team.
‘Ready to go to jail’
In a video message released in the afternoon, Imran Khan while sensing the inevitability of his arrest released a video message, advising his supporters to continue the struggle for “real freedom” regardless of his “arrest or death”.
Later, in an interview with BBC Urdu released after midnight, Mr Khan referred to the attempts to arrest him – for which he was ready – saying that it seemed the alleged promises made to Nawaz Sharif by the establishment were being kept.
According to the former premier, he did not understand why the establishment and the army chief were “backing the PDM government” even though it was damaging the reputation of the state institution.
He added that the PDM would not last a single day without the crutches of the establishment. The ex-PM said there were no attempts to get in touch with the current top brass of the army, adding that doors for talks were, however, always open.
Mr Khan said he was prepared to go to jail and for the day-to-day operations of the PTI, he had formed a committee of party leaders.
The call issued by Imran Khan apparently gave new vigour to his supporters since more and more activists thronged Zaman Park, where the party chairman was holed up in his house.
The local leadership, which was criticised on social media for its failure to mobilise workers, also rose up to the task and moved its workers who quickly outnumbered the police.
As the faceoff with the police continued both sides continued to resort to violent means to break the impasse. But it seems, for now, the PTI has pushed the police back.
The stick-wielding and stone-pelting workers added another weapon to their arsenal at nightfall – petrol bombs. These bombs set police vehicles alight, particularly the primary weapon i.e. water cannons.
As both sides stuck to their guns and the day started wearing out, police also expanded the scope of the operation and called the Rangers for help and added a helicopter for air surveillance. It also switched off the internet facility and electricity around Zaman Park littered with teargas shells and remains of burnt tyres. By the time this report went to press, the police were on the move for another push.
As this crisis continued to unfold, former US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad tweeted that the attempts to detain Imran Khan would only “deepen” Pakistan’s political crisis as he called for some “serious soul-searching”.
Protests across the country
The events in Zaman Park did not escape the notice of Mr Khan’s supporters across the country, and several cities saw protests by PTI workers.
In Islamabad, at least four policemen were injured and over two dozen supporters of the former ruling were detained after protests erupted in several parts of the federal capital, resulting in logjams across the city.
On the call of Imran Khan, the supporters converged in multiple cities across Punjab to express solidarity with their party chief. Agitations were reported in Gujranwala, Hafizabad, Mandi Bhauddin, Sialkot, Narowal, and the adjoining districts of Lahore, including Sheikhpura and Kasur.
Similarly, the PTI workers also took to the streets in Sahiwal, Okara, Sargodha, Multan, Muzaffargarh, Bahawalpur, DG Khan, Rawalpindi, and Faisalabad. There were reports of some minor scuffles between the police and the PTI supporters.
A large number of PTI workers and supporters also took to the streets across Sindh, particularly Karachi, to stage demonstrations at more than a dozen key road links and traffic intersections.
Though the protests remained largely peaceful and only caused traffic jams across Karachi, sporadic incidents of violence were reported where the police used teargas and baton-charge to arrest the PTI workers.