PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistan’s ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan defended Friday his decision to call off a planned, opened-ended rally and sit-in this week in the capital, Islamabad, saying he wanted to avoid more violence.
Khan spoke at a news conference in the northwestern city of Peshawar. His rally ended abruptly on Thursday morning, after thousands of Khan supporters had marched into central Islamabad to protest outside Parliament and demand early elections.
Some members from his Tehreek-e-Insaf party were unhappy with Khan’s decision as the sit-in had expected to go on until the government met their demands.
Khan, now Pakistan’s top opposition leader, was ousted in a no-confidence vote in April after some of his party's lawmakers and a key coalition partner defected. He has claimed that his ouster was a plot between the opposition and the United States. Washington has denied allegations of any involvement in Pakistan's internal politics.
Khan's march on Islamabad, which started Wednesday, was the largest rally by the former cricket star turned Islamist politician over the past few weeks. He personally led thousands of supporters from of Peshawar, urging his countrymen to “liberate” Pakistan from the allegedly U.S.-imposed government of his successor Shahbaz Sharif.
Dozens of his supporters and more than 100 policemen were injured in scuffles when clashes broke out between demonstrators and police in Islamabad and elsewhere in the country.
Authorities have arrested more than 1,700 Khan supporters; they claim Khan ended his rally after seeing poor popular response, with the crowd numbering only between 10,000 and 15,000.
At the press conference Friday, Khan said he saw that large-scale violence could erupt at any moment as riot police had already fired tear gas and charged his supporters, beating them with batons.
“This is what forced me to call off the sit-in in the best interest of the country," he said, and condemned Sharif for ordering a crackdown against his party.
Khan also renewed his threat of another massive march next week unless Sharif’s government calls early elections.
Sharif insisted in a televised speech later Friday that there was no U.S. conspiracy against his predecessor. His government has rejected Khan's demands for early elections.
He also defended his decision to slash fuel subsidies imposed by Khan, saying that was a violation of conditions set by the International Monetary Fund. Fuel prices were raised to save Pakistan's economy from bankruptcy, Sharif added.