Thousands of anti-government protesters in Pakistan called off a two-week sit-in on Islamabad’s main highway, but began what they called “Plan B” aimed at crippling the country’s roads and toppling Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Protest leader Fazl-ur-Rehman, chief of the conservative Assembly of Islamic Clerics (Jamiat Ulema Islam-Fazl; JUI-F) party, told his supporters on Wednesday to return to their home states to begin the “next phase” of the “ongoing movement”, which he said would continue until the government resigns and fresh elections are held.
Demonstrators set off on the march from the southern city of Karachi on October 27 and arrived in Islamabad on October 31, where they had been holding a sit-in for almost two weeks.
“Our strength is converged here, and our associates are out on the roads. They need your help and assistance,” Rehman told the crowd from the top of an articulated truck that has served as a stage for nightly addresses to protesters.
“Your presence here has cut the roots of the government. In the next phase, we will demolish this trunk.”
He threatened to block several main highways, which could disconnect major cities from the rest of the country.
Earlier on Wednesday, JUI-F workers, holding party flags, blocked the western Quetta-Chaman highway linking the country with Afghanistan, resulting in a long queue of trucks laden with goods, footage aired by private news channels showed.
“The roads are already blocked with our workers but we are going to sit with them,” said Qutb-ud-Din, one of the many party supporters dismantling the makeshift tent camp in Islamabad. “We are going to begin Plan B.”
Some 150 demonstrators also reportedly blocked a highway in the southern Sindh province.
The protests have been fuelled by a deepening economic crisis, with the opposition condemning Khan’s Pakistan Movement for Justice (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf; PTI) party-led government of mismanagement.
The protesters are mainly from the JUI-F party, and a large number of teachers and students from the party’s extensive network of religious schools across the country.
The main opposition parties, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), have backed the protests, but their participation in the actual demonstration has been limited.
Rehman has accused the prime minister of taking power last year with the help of the military, which has ruled Pakistan for roughly half its history.
Khan and the military have denied the accusations, which have swirled since the July 2018 election.
But Rehman, a longtime rival of Khan, brought his supporters to Islamabad and gave the prime minister 48 hours to step down.
The cricketer-turned-politician Khan maintains he will not bow to the pressure and resign.
Some supporters at the Islamabad protest said that if the “Plan B” does not work, they will return.
“Our Plan B is going to be tougher than Plan A,” 29-year-old Shehryar Fahim told the AFP news agency, adding that if needed, they would protest at Khan’s private residence in Bani Gala, a suburb of Islamabad.