ISLAMABAD (AP) — A Pakistan opposition politician announced Monday he will lead thousands of protesters into the capital's high-security "Red Zone" as his 48-hour deadline for the government to step down ends, heightening the danger of a violent confrontation.
Imran Khan, a former cricket legend who heads parliament's third-largest political bloc, made the announcement at a rally in Islamabad calling for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to step down over alleged voting fraud in 2013 elections. Khan's protest is part of twin demonstrations drawing tens of thousands of people that are wreaking havoc in the capital of 1.7 million people.
Khan's announcement also raises the fear of political instability in a nuclear-armed country that only saw its first democratic transfer of power after the May 2013 elections.
Islamabad's "Red Zone" houses diplomatic posts, parliament, government offices and the presidential and prime ministerial palaces. Khan said the protest will begin Tuesday.
"I will be in front and workers will remain in the back so that if any bullet is fired it will hit me, not my workers," Khan said.
Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan has repeatedly said no one would be allowed to enter the high security zone, which is protected by police and blocked off with shipping containers.
Khan announced earlier Monday that his party lawmakers will resign from the parliament and provincial assemblies except for the Khuber Pakhtunkhwa provincial assembly where his party — Pakistan Tahrik-e-Insaf — is in charge. On Sunday, Khan also called on protesters to stop paying taxes and practice civil disobedience until Sharif steps down.
Khan and cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri, a dual Pakistani-Canadian citizen with a wide following, have mounted twin protests against Sharif, accusing him of rigging the election that brought him to power. Sharif has said he won't step down.
While the crowds have fallen well short of 1 million marchers that both men promised, their presence and the heightened security measures have virtually shut down business in the capital. The rallies have nevertheless remained festive, with families picnicking and men and women dancing to drums and national songs.
Police estimate that the crowds in both sit-ins have gradually dwindled since they arrived in the capital late Friday. Both rallies began as caravans of vehicles setting out from the eastern city of Lahore. Police official Nasir Shah estimated that there were currently around 25,000 to 30,000 people in both rallies.