ISLAMABAD – Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters armed with wire cutters and backed by cranes marched on Pakistan’s parliament Tuesday, removing barriers blocking them from soldiers guarding the seat of the country’s government.
The protesters, wearing masks and carrying makeshift shields, hammered through barbed wire and locks connecting shipping containers together that authorities put on roads to block off Islamabad’s so-called “Red Zone,” which also holds the president and prime minister’s ceremonial homes and many diplomatic posts.
Women and children also took part in the march as police officers stood by and watched, setting up a possible showdown later between hundreds of waiting soldiers and some 30,000 protesters backing opposition candidate Imran Khan and anti-government cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri.
Both men have called on by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to step down over allegations of fraud in last year’s election. Sharif has refused and ordered the soldiers out into the streets, the first military deployment in the capital since Pakistan has been under civilian leadership. Authorities previously said they would not allow protesters to enter the “Red Zone,” though protesters met no immediate resistance late Tuesday night.
Two Pakistani security officials said a total of 700 troops had been deployed to guard the “Red Zone.” They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to speak publicly about troop movements. Another 30,000 members of the country’s security forces also were in the area, authorities said.
Authorities pleaded for calm ahead of the march, then later warned of possible bloodshed.
“They want blood. They want dead bodies. That’s their politics,” Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid said. “If anything happen, the protesters will be held responsible.”
The demonstrators have camped out in Islamabad in two rallies since last week. Khan and Qadri have vowed to keep up the sit-ins until Sharif resigns.
Khan, who heads parliament’s third-largest political bloc, announced Monday that he and his supporters would march into Islamabad’s “Red Zone.” On Tuesday, Khan said they would make a “Tahrir Square” outside the parliament, referring to the famed square in Egypt that saw mass protests in 2011.
“Let us promise that we will remain peaceful,” Qadri asked his followers. Khan told his supporters: “No one will trespass into any building.”
Khan’s Tehrik-e-Insaf party has alleged that Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N rigged last year’s elections. Sharif has agreed to set up a judicial commission to probe the allegation but has refused to step down.
Khan has said he won’t go home without Sharif’s resignation, setting up a possible violent confrontation.
The standoff has raised fears of political instability in this nuclear-armed country of 180 million, which has largely been ruled by dictators since independence.
Sharif, himself overthrown in the 1999 coup that brought former army chief Pervez Musharraf to power, has been meeting with top advisers ahead of the rally. The government also has invoked a rarely used article in the constitution allowing the military to introduce martial law if needed.
Both men picked Pakistan’s Independence Day to begin their marches, the day marking when the country became its own nation carved out of India in 1947. In the opaque world of Pakistani politics, where security services remain powerful, there has been wide speculation that the two men have other internal support, something they’ve denied.
Relations between Sharif and the military frayed when the government decided late last year to prosecute Musharraf for high treason. The military also has bristled at accusations that its powerful spy chief was behind the assassination attempt of a powerful television anchor.
The military hasn’t commented on Khan or Qadri but generally says it does not meddle in politics.
In Washington, U.S. State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said authorities there were monitoring the protests.
“We urge all sides to refrain from violence, exercise restraint and respect the rule of law,” Harf said.
The Islamabad rallies come as Pakistan’s military is waging a major operation against local and foreign militants in the North Waziristan tribal region bordering Afghanistan. The military said it carried our multiple airstrikes Tuesday in the Khyber and North Wazristan tribal region that killed 48 militants.
Pakistan’s tribal regions are off-limits to journalists, making verifying claims over airstrikes difficult.
Also Tuesday, a roadside bomb struck a school van with children and teachers in Khar, the main town in the northwestern tribal region of Bajur, killing five people, a government administrator said.
Associated Press writers Anwarullah Khan in Bajur, Pakistan, Munir Ahmed in Islamabad and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.