Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan told tens of thousands of supporters on Saturday he would fight to his “last drop of blood” in his first public speech since being shot dead in a assassination attempt this month.
The shooting was the latest twist in months of political turmoil that began in April when Khan was ousted by a vote of no confidence in parliament.
Saturday’s rally was the culmination of a so-called ‘long march’ by Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party to pressure the government to call a snap election before the expiration of Parliament’s term in October next year.
“I’ve seen death up close,” said Khan, who hobbled to the stage on a walker to talk to supporters from a comfortable seat behind a bulletproof glass panel.
“I am more worried about Pakistan’s freedom than my life,” he told the crowd. “I will fight for this country until my last drop of blood.”
Khan said on Saturday he was calling off his protest march to Islamabad because he feared it would wreak havoc in the country. The protests were due to culminate in a march to Islamabad that threatened to deepen political unrest in the nuclear-armed country, which is also battling an economic crisis.
“I have decided not to go to Islamabad because I know there will be havoc and the loss will be for the country,” Khan told a gathering of thousands of supporters in the garrison town of Rawalpindi, near the capital, Islamabad.
Khan draws sectarian devotion from supporters, but on Saturday he delivered his speech hundreds of yards from the mass of the crowd of around 25,000 to 30,000 people, separated by coils of barbed wire and a pad of policemen. Cell phone signals were jammed nearby.
A police official told local broadcaster Geo TV that a total of 10,000 people had been deployed for the event, with snipers positioned at various locations for its security. Khan said on Saturday he had been informed by various security sources that his life was still in danger.
Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah – whom Khan accuses of being involved in the assassination plot – issued a “red alert” on Friday, warning of threats to the security of the gathering. He listed the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda among the extremist groups that could harm Khan.
Authorities have thrown a ring of steel around nearby Islamabad to prevent its supporters from marching on government buildings, with thousands of security personnel deployed and roads blocked by shipping containers.
Khan also said he was consulting with his party, the PTI, on the possibility of resigning from all provincial assemblies in a new attempt to push for a snap election. The PTI has already resigned from the federal parliament, but remains in power in two provinces and two administrative units.
The ousted leader was shot in the shin on November 3 when his anti-government protest convoy was attacked in the east of the country, in what his aides said was a clear assassination attempt by his rivals.
He named the prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, and a senior military official for plotting his assassination, but the government and military denied any involvement. Sharif called for a transparent investigation. One person was arrested for this incident and said he acted alone.
Saturday’s rally came two days after the government named a former spymaster under Khan as its next military chief. The appointment of General Syed Asim Munir ended months of speculation over a position long considered the real power in the nuclear-armed Islamic nation of 220 million people.
Munir served as head of the inter-service intelligence agency under Khan, but his tenure ended after just eight months after the pair reportedly fell out.
Pakistan’s military, the sixth largest in the world, is hugely influential in the country and has staged at least three coups since independence in 1947, in power for more than three decades.
With Agence France-Presse, Reuters and Associated Press