Pakistani police use water cannons, tear gas on Khan rally

LAHORE, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistani police used water cannons and fired tear gas to disperse supporters of former prime minister Imran Khan on Wednesday in the eastern city of Lahore. More than 40 supporters of Khan were arrested for defying a government ban on holding rallies in the city, police said.

The developments followed Khan’s launching of provincial election campaigns Tuesday for eastern Punjab and northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province provinces, where the ex-premier's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party has held a majority in past rounds of voting.

Khan, now opposition leader, was ousted in a no-confidence vote in Parliament last April. He has claimed his removal was illegal and has also campaigned for early parliamentary elections. The government of his successor, Shahbaz Sharif, has dismissed Khan's demands, saying the nationwide vote will take place as scheduled later in the year.

Khan in a video message later asked his supporters to go to their homes. He said he was asking his supporters to disperse to avoid clashes with the police ahead of the elections.

Khan spoke via video link as Pakistan’s media regulator has banned broadcasts of his speeches on charges he was spreading hate against the nation's institutions, a reference to the military. Khan has accused the military of conspiring to oust him. The military has denied the charge, saying there was no truth to the allegation.

A senior leader from Khan's party, Hammad Azhar, said police detained scores of their supporters ahead of the planned rally, which was to start in Lahore's upscale Zaman Park area where Khan lives. “Police launched this crackdown when Imran Khan is about to lead the rally," he said.

Azhar claimed that hundreds of their supporters were arrested, and several were injured when police “ruthlessly swung batons, fired tear gas and misbehaved with women, who wanted to participate in the rally," he told reporters outside Khan's home.

Khan's party in a statement hours later claimed that one of the rallygoers was killed in the police crackdown near Khan's house in Lahore. However, police said it was still trying to verify the claim

Afzal Kauser, the Lahore police chief, said Khan's supporters were arrested only when they clashed with police. He said Khan had been informed about the ban on rallies, but the former premier issued a call for the demonstration anyway.

The development is the latest in a political tug of war between the former cricket star turned Islamist politician and the government of his successor, Shahbaz Sharif, as Khan campaigns for early elections.

Police also swung batons and briefly fired tear gas on the road leading to Khan’s house to disperse his supporters. TV footage showed at least one large truck spraying water, scattering protesters.

Normal life was disrupted in an area in Lahore where Khan lives as police blocked a key road to stop him and his supporters from joining the rally. The procession was to pass by an area where women were holding a peaceful demonstration to mark International Women’s Day. They had previously been granted permission to hold gatherings in specified areas of the city.

In Islamabad, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan, who is not related to the former prime minister, told a news conference that Khan's party deliberately chose that area for their election rally. He said police acted only against supporters of Khan who defied the ban on rallies in the city.

Imran Khan, who was in his home at the time, condemned the use of “massive police violence against unarmed" people. Neelum Shehzadi, a supporter of Khan, told The Associated Press that they were peaceful but the police started swinging their batons and firing shells. She said officers damaged the vehicles of rallygoers.

Fawad Chaudhry, another senior leader from Khan’s party, tweeted that the ban on protests was “the new weapon of the fascist government" of Sharif and its “imperialist forces.”

"The people of Pakistan have always fought for their rights,” Chaudhry added.

Khan, 70, is embroiled in a string of court cases, including terrorism charges raised by the police in various parts of the country. He has so far avoided arrest and claims the legal imbroglio has been orchestrated by the government in an attempt to silence him.

On Tuesday, he accused the government of being behind the 76 legal cases raised against him. Khan has also claimed, without providing evidence, that his removal was illegal and a conspiracy by Sharif and Washington. Both the United States and Pakistan’s government have denied those allegations.

Khan has been living in Lahore since November when he was shot in the leg by a gunman during a protest rally. Since then, he has only once traveled to Islamabad — last week — for court appearances in other cases against him.