A defiant former prime minister Imran Khan on Wednesday marched towards Islamabad with hundreds of his supporters who were removing the barricades placed by the government to stop them, even as Pakistan's Supreme Court directed authorities to allow the protest rally in the national capital and restrained them from arresting the cricketer-turned-politician.
A three-member bench headed by Justice Ijazul Ahsan, and comprising Justice Munib Akhtar and Justice Sayyed Mazahar Ali Akbar Naqvi ordered that the ground between G-9 and H-9 Sectors of the national capital should be provided for the purpose of the rally by Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party.
Issuing directions on a petition filed on Tuesday by Islamabad High Court Bar Association President Mohammad Shoaib Shaheen, the court also ordered a bipartisan committee of the government and PTI to settle the terms and conditions for holding the rally in a peaceful manner.
The court also instructed the authorities to not make "unnecessary use of force" and not raid the homes and offices of or arrest other PTI leaders and workers.
Meanwhile, Khan in the evening said that his long march had entered Punjab and was heading towards Islamabad. He started his march from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with a large caravan to demand the removal of the government and an immediate national election.
"No amount of state oppression and fascism by this imported govt can stop or deter our march," tweeted the 69-year-old former premier, who has been leading the march mounting on a truck.
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif took to social media to oppose the protest launched by Khan to force early elections.
It has been my conviction that Pakistan will progress only through sheer hard work. Politics of dharna is detrimental to progress & stability. We are focused on overcoming the challenges of governance. Nothing can distract us from the task at hand. I owe it to the people of Pakistan, he said.
His statement came as Khan told his followers to reach the D-Chowk in the heart of the capital Islamabad where he promised to reach as early as possible.
He announced a sit-in until the government announced early elections.
Interior minister Rana Sanaullah said Khan's decision to hold rally at the D-Chowk was a violation of the Supreme Court which asked his party to organize the rally at a ground in H-9 Sector of the capital adjacent to the Srinagar Highway.
The court had given conditional permission to hold a rally at H-9 but Khan's track record shows that he neither showed respect towards the courts nor other institutions, Sanaullah said.
Khan was able to enter Punjab from Attock a little around 6 pm after his supporters successfully removed the barricades placed by the government at the Attock bridge to stop marchers from entering the province.
He also rejected reports about any deal with the government on his protest march, saying the rally would go ahead followed by a sit-in in Islamabad until new elections were announced by the Pakistani authorities.
"Rumours and deliberate disinformation that a deal has been done. Absolutely not! We are moving towards Islamabad & no question of any deal. We will remain in Islamabad till announcement of dates for dissolution of assemblies & elections are given. Calling all people of Islamabad & Rawalpindi to join," he tweeted earlier.
His statement came after Dunya News channel reported that the government has struck a deal with Khan to peacefully hold his party's "Azadi March" in Islamabad at the mediation of the powerful army.
The ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party's vice president Maryam Nawaz also rejected the report about any deal with Khan's party. She responded to a tweet by a journalist that PTI leaders offered to call off their protest if they were allowed to hold a rally in Islamabad.
"This is correct. They were looking for a safe exit for the two days after seeing that the march was failing. Today, when the Long March failed miserably, they proposed a rally instead of a sit-in," she tweeted.
She went on to add: "The government has refused to accede to any of Imran Khan's proposals."
The powerful Pakistan Army, which has ruled the coup-prone country for more than half of its nearly 75 years of existence, has hitherto wielded considerable power in the matters of security and foreign policy.
Khan, who was ousted from power last month through a no-trust vote, had apparently lost support of the Army after he refused to endorse the appointment of the ISI spy agency chief last year.
He has been claiming that the no-trust motion against him was the result of a foreign conspiracy because of his independent foreign policy and funds were being channelled from abroad to oust him from power. He has named the US as the country behind the conspiracy, a charge denied by Washington.
Addressing his supporters in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Khan earlier said the "thieves and the servants of America were ruling in Islamabad".
He urged his supporters to remain "peaceful", and said the march would go ahead as per plan to hold the rally at the D-Chowk in Islamabad, which is located close to several important government buildings: the Presidency, the Prime Minister's office, the Parliament, and the Supreme Court.
"We will stay in Islamabad until the government decides to dissolve assemblies and announces election dates," he reiterated after reaching Swabi.
He added that they will reach D-Chowk and no hurdle can stop them.
Authorities had blocked major roads leading to Islamabad using dozens of shipping containers and trucks and arrested several supporters of Khan in a bid to derail the protest march.
Around 8 pm, some prominent PTI leaders, including Fawad Chaudhry and Shireen Mazari, urged supporters to make their way to the D-Chowk, saying that all containers and blockades on the way had been removed, Dawn reported.
On Tuesday, the government had banned the PTI rally to prevent Khan's supporters from "propagating their misleading agenda".
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif's coalition government initially allowed the protest, but on Tuesday refused to give permission, fearing violence and lawlessness in the wake of the march.
Earlier in the morning, police fired tear gas and chased Khan's supporters who hurled stones near Punjab's capital Lahore, leaving several persons from sides injured. The clashes between the police and Khan's supporters were also reported at several places.
A crackdown started in various cities and police arrested hundreds of PTI workers and some of its leaders to stop them from joining the protest known as Azadi March . TV channels showed the police firing teargas and beating Khan's supporters at some places in Punjab province.
The government had imposed Section 144 to ban big gatherings in Punjab's capital Lahore, the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad, and Karachi, as well as other major cities. Additional police and paramilitary troops were deployed on roads leading to Islamabad.
Meanwhile, hundreds of supporters of Khan have already reached D-Chowk where police used tear-gas to disperse them but without any success.
The angry workers retaliated by putting on fire several trees and shrubs along the Jinnah Avenue leading to the D-Chowk.
Observers said Khan's decision to hold a rally at the D-Chowk would go against him when the Supreme Court would take up his petition Thursday in connection with his rally.
The court in its short order today not only allowed him to hold a peaceful political activity and disperse afterwards but also asked his PTI and the government to hold talks for sorting out irritants in the way of peaceful protest by Khan.