Islamabad — Pakistan’s major cities were hit by riots and unrest again on Wednesday when a court in the capital Islamabad ordered former Prime Minister Imran Khan to be remanded in custody for eight days on corruption charges. Army troops are deployed on the streets of the country’s two largest provinces, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, amid the chaos caused by the arrest of the former leader. At least eight people were killed in the clashes, according to a senior government official, but Khan’s party says the real death toll is in the dozens.
At least four people were killed in the northwestern city of Peshawar on Wednesday when supporters of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) political party stormed the offices of national broadcaster Radio Pakistan, officials said. It was just one of many expressions of anger among Khan’s supporters after his arrest on Tuesday morning when he appeared in court on corruption charges.
The gunfire was heard from the Bala Hisaar Fort in Peshawar, where the military installation is located. One protester was killed in the southwestern city of Quetta on Tuesday, bringing the officially confirmed death toll from two days of unrest to at least five. The PTI, however, claims that around 50 people have been killed and more than 1,000 arrested.
Police said in a statement on Wednesday that officers in Pakistan’s largest province, Punjab, had arrested at least 945 supporters of Khan since Tuesday, including senior PTI leader Asad Umar. Dozens of Khan’s supporters were also detained in Islamabad, Karachi, Peshawar and other places. At least 157 police officers were injured in clashes with Khan’s supporters, officials said.
Schools across the country were closed and major roads remained quiet or deserted as people not participating in the protests mostly chose to stay indoors. Several of the country’s major social media platforms were offline, and internet connections were either suspended or disrupted repeatedly as authorities throttled communications in an attempt to contain the unrest.
Khan was removed from power last year, losing a no-confidence vote in parliament, but the former national cricket star remains one of Pakistan’s most popular politicians. He came to power in 2018 with the support of the country’s powerful military, but has since clashed dramatically with the army leadership, even publicly accusing a senior officer of planning to kill him.
When he was arrested on Tuesday, Khan appeared in court on several corruption charges brought by the Islamabad police. When he appeared in court, dozens of agents from the National Accountability Bureau, backed by paramilitary groups, stormed the courtroom, smashing windows after Khan’s bodyguards refused to open the door.
Khan’s supporters quickly attacked the army headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, near Islamabad, but did not reach the main building that houses the offices of army chief General Asim Munir.
Other protesters tried to reach the office and residence of current military-backed Prime Minister Shebaz Sharif in Lahore, but were chased away by baton-wielding police. Others attacked vehicles with soldiers and beat armed soldiers with sticks.
So far, the authorities say that neither the police nor the military have fired at the demonstrators. However, unverified videos posted on social media since Tuesday show plainclothes people shooting during protests in several cities.
Pakistan’s military issued its first response to the unrest on Wednesday, calling attacks “on army property and facilities” a “black page” in the country and vowing that “no one will be allowed to take the law into their own hands.”
The army said Khan was arrested “as per NAB’s statement and the law” and called those rioting against his detention “rascals” who are trying to “arouse the emotions of the nation to achieve their narrow and selfish ends”.
None of Khan’s party leaders condemned the attacks on the military, but they publicly called for the demonstrations to remain peaceful.
The violent unrest has prompted calls from the US and UK for their citizens to avoid traveling to Pakistan and to take all possible measures to stay safe if they are already in the country.