Anti-government protesters in Pakistan were met with tear gas and rubber bullets as they entered Parliament grounds in Islamabad on Sunday to demand Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's resignation.
After weeks of largely peaceful demonstrations, former cricket star turned politician Imran Khan and Pakistani-Canadian cleric Tahir-ul-Qadr, both leaders of the country’s major opposition parties, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), led the protesters through police barricades towards government buildings, where a violent police response wounded at least 500 and killed three. The Pakistani military quickly took over police operations as the clashes turned chaotic.
The Associated Press, quoting a lead doctor at the city's main hospital, reports that some of the injured "included women, children, journalists and police officers who had been hurt by tear gas shells, batons and rubber bullets."
Some protesters also commandeered a state-run TV station and briefly forced the broadcast off the air, but the army secured the building again on Monday. Khan denied involvement in the takeover of the TV station, according to the AP.
The Guardian reported that one protester, Naveed Razzaq, drowned in a ditch when the crowd was bombarded with tear gas.
For more than two weeks, PTI and PAT have been occupying Islamabad’s “red zone” — a high-security compound that includes the Parliament, the Supreme Court and other diplomatic buildings — calling for the resignation of Sharif, whom they say won his unprecedented third term in office fraudulently. The prime minister came to power 15 months ago and said the demands for him to resign were “unconstitutional,” but the government has been unable to negotiate an end to the revolt.
Khan has said he will not back down until Sharif steps down or allows an investigation into the elections. The protests, which have blocked traffic and slowed down trade in Islamabad, threaten to collapse the government or at least severely weaken Sharif’s tenure.
Sharif’s previous session as PM ended in 1999 with a military coup and his exile. His most recent term has been similarly contentious in the brief time since taking office last year, as he has clashed with the army and other government agencies.
The army chief held emergency talks late Sunday with the military high command. In a statement following the meeting, the military said it was "committed to playing its part in ensuring security of the state" but urged for the situation to be "resolved politically without wasting any time and without recourse to violent means.”
In a video posted to Khan’s Facebook page, the opposition leader can be seen wiping tear gas from his eyes and calling on citizens to join the protests. “Everyone come out on streets in your cities,” Khan said.
My video message. I want all democracy-loving Pakistanis to come to Azadi Chowk & fight forces of fascism. https://t.co/kI1KtTuets— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) August 30, 2014
Many protesters say they hope the army will step in to support their cause by either seizing power or at least ordering Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to step down, but analysts say that move would jeopardize vital subsidies coming in from the U.S. government, which gives Pakistan billions of dollars in aid, the Guardian says.
On Sunday, Khan said the police violence against the demonstrators was illegal. "Now we will show this government,” he announced. “We will call for countrywide agitation and we will jam the whole of Pakistan.”
On Saturday, the government said that Sharif would not step down, despite the chaos and economic slowdown in the capital, as well as other violent outbreaks in cities throughout the country.
"Now, it is death or freedom," Khan said. "We will not leave from here without Nawaz Sharif's resignation."