ISLAMABAD (AP) — A gunman opened fire at a protest rally in eastern Pakistan on Thursday, slightly wounding former Prime Minister Imran Khan in the leg and killing one of his supporters, his party and police said. Nine other people also were hurt.
The gunman was immediately arrested, and police later released a video of him in custody, allegedly confessing to the shooting and saying he acted alone. It was not clear under what conditions he made his statement.
“Only Imran Khan was my target,” said the suspect, identified as Faisal Butt by Information Minister Maryam Aurangzeb.
Khan, 70, underwent surgery at Shaukat Khanum Hospital in Lahore, tweeted Omar Ayub Khan, a senior leader of the ex-premier's Tehreek-e-Insaf party. Khan was seen with a bandage on his right leg, just above the foot, according to reports and a blurry image from the protest.
The shooting was an “assassination attempt,” party spokesman Fawad Chaudhry told rallygoers afterward in Wazirabad. He added that “it was an attack on the whole of Pakistan,” and vowed that the people would avenge it.
The violence, which follows Khan's ouster as prime minister in a no-confidence vote in April, raised new concerns about growing political instability in Pakistan, a country with a long history of political violence and assassinations.
Since he lost the vote in Parliament, Khan has mobilized mass rallies across the nuclear-armed nation of 225 million, whipping up crowds with claims that he was a victim of a conspiracy by his successor, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, and the United States — allegations that both the premier and Washington deny.
Sharif condemned Thursday's attack and ordered his government to investigate the incident. He added that he was praying for Khan, adding: "Violence should have no place in our country’s politics.”
The White House also condemned the attack and hoped for the swift recovery of all the wounded. “We call on all parties to remain peaceful and refrain from violence,” press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Air Force One as President Joe Biden flew to New Mexico.
The attack happened in the Wazirabad district in the eastern Punjab province where the former cricket star-turned-Islamist politician was traveling in a large protest convoy of trucks and cars heading for the capital of Islamabad. The convoy is part of his campaign aimed at forcing the government to hold early elections.
District police officer Ghazanfar Ali said one person was killed and nine others were wounded in the attack.
Among the wounded was Faisal Javed, a lawmaker from Tehreek-e-Insaf. In a video statement, with his bloodstained clothes visible, he said the attack would not stop Khan's march on Islamabad. Khan’s supporters rallied in different parts of the country after the shooting.
Khan has been at loggerheads with Pakistan’s powerful military and has refused to halt his protest plans in the capital. The military has said that although Khan had a right to hold a rally there, no one would be allowed to destabilize the country. Authorities in Islamabad have deployed additional security to deter any clashes.
The attack came less than a week after Khan began his march from Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, with thousands of supporters.
Earlier, Chaudhry had said they plan to enter Islamabad on Friday.
Sharif’s government has said that there would be no early election and that the next balloting will be held as scheduled in 2023.
Khan’s latest challenge comes after Pakistan’s elections commission disqualified him from holding public office for five years for allegedly selling state gifts unlawfully and concealing assets as premier.
Khan, who has challenged the disqualification in court, has said he would sue Chief Election Commissioner Sikandara Raja, who was behind the decision, for calling him a “dishonest person.”
Pakistan has a long history of political assassinations.
Benazir Bhutto, the first democratically elected female leader of a Muslim country, was killed in 2007. Her father, former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was ousted by Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq in a 1977 coup and was hanged two years later for conspiracy to kill a political rival. Zia died in a 1988 plane crash that investigators said appeared to be sabotage. That crash also killed the U.S. ambassador and 28 others.
The new violence comes as the impoverished country is grappling with the aftermath of unprecedented floods in the summer that killed 1,735 people and displaced 33 million.
Associated Press writer Babar Dogar in Lahore contributed.