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Tens of thousands rally in Pakistan against prime minister

Imran Khan claps for his supporters during an anti-government rally in Islamabad today. (Associated Press)
Imran Khan claps for his supporters during an anti-government rally in Islamabad today. (Associated Press)

ISLAMABAD – Pakistan’s famous cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan today addressed a huge rally in the capital and in the biggest challenge yet to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, demanded he step down to pave the way for fresh elections, saying last year’s vote was massively rigged.

“I’ll sit here and Nawaz Sharif, you decide. You have just one option: resign and hold re-elections,” Khan told tens of thousands of supporters gathered in the pouring rain. He vowed to continue a sit-in until Sharif quits.

He said that the current leadership was unacceptable. “We do not recognize them, we have to get justice, we have to get freedom from these types of rulers,” he said.

Rana Sanaullah, a senior leader of Sharif’s ruling party, said the government was ready to investigate allegations of cheating in the 2013 elections, but ruled out that Sharif could be removed through a rally.

The protesters left the eastern city of Lahore on Thursday, vowing to march to the capital and camp out there until their demands for a new government are met. Despite the darkness and the lashing rain, the crowds swelled as they entered Islamabad late Friday.

Anti-Taliban cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri also reached Islamabad late Friday, and he too led tens of thousands of his supporters to bring about what he called a “green revolution.” The twin protests led by Khan and Qadri represent the biggest challenge yet to Sharif’s year-old government.

Security has been tightened across the capital amid fears of unrest in a country with a long history of chaotic politics and military coups. Authorities set up shipping containers to block traffic and cut off cellphone service in some areas.

Police estimated some 60,000 people were taking part in the rallies.

The protests were festive despite the rain, with demonstrators waving national and party flags and dancing to drum beats and patriotic songs. Women supporters of Qadri, wearing Islamic headscarves, lined the roads and waved at his convoy as it entered the city.

Sharif said he was ready to meet with his opponents but has given no indication that he would step down. His critics accuse him of vote fraud during the election that brought him to power last year.

Sharif’s spokesman, Pervaiz Rashid, condemned the “irresponsible behavior and actions” of his opponents.

“Pakistan is not a banana republic, where a few thousand people come and seek the resignation of the country’s prime minister,” he told a local news channel.

Both Khan and Qadri have vowed to bring 1 million followers into the streets of Islamabad, a city of roughly 1.7 million inhabitants.