Tahir-ul-Qadri leads long march towards Islamabad
JHELUM: Tens of thousands of Pakistanis inched towards Islamabad Monday, in a protest march led by Tehreek-e-Minhajul Quran chief Tahir-ul Qadri calling for revolution but accused by the government of trying to sow political chaos ahead of elections.
Tahir-ul Qadri, who returned to Pakistan last month after years in Toronto, accuses the government of being corrupt and incompetent, and says polls cannot be held until reforms are enacted.
He claimed on Monday to be leading one million people into Islamabad, where they will camp out on the streets until their demands are accepted.
But the significance of the rally will likely hinge on turnout, whether there is any violence at the gathering and to what extent the protesters are able to penetrate Islamabad, where shipping containers have been used to seal off the main approaches.
Witnesses estimated that tens of thousands of people had joined the rally by the time it reached Jhelum, 120 kilometres (75 miles) south of the capital.
In Jhelum, witnesses saw men, women and children carrying Pakistani flags and piled onto the rooftops of buses, flashing victory signs as part of a five-kilometre convoy of cars, trucks, motorcycles and other vehicles.
Anthems blasted out of loudspeakers as protesters danced to drumbeats and residents lined both sides of the road, showering the crowd with rose petals.
Qadri wants an independent caretaker government to be set up in consultation with the military and judiciary when parliament disbands in mid-March, and is calling for reform so that "honest people" can be elected at polls due by mid-May.
"Come out of your homes to save Pakistan, save the future of your children, save your religion, save the honour of the country in the comity of nations, save the country from robbers, thieves and corrupt rulers," he said.
Interior minister Rehman Malik has repeatedly warned that the Taliban could launch an attack on the march.
Thousands of security officers deployed in Islamabad to help protect government and diplomatic areas as hundreds started to gather in the city.
Many of those taking part in the protest are long-standing followers of Qadri and activists in his TMQ movement, which has a network of religious and educational institutions in Pakistan and all over the world.
"We are following him for bringing change into our country. We will stay in Islamabad till change comes," said Faiza Iftikhar, a coordinator in the organisation from the industrial city of Faisalabad.
The convoy left the eastern city of Lahore on Sunday for Islamabad and police say thousands of officers have been deployed along the route of the march, including more than a dozen police vehicles guarding Qadri.
Mobile phone networks have been shut down en route, a precaution designed to stop the Taliban and other Islamist militant groups detonating bombs.