Pakistani minister hints at action against Imran Khan convoy

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan’s interior minister alleged on Saturday that the country’s former premier, Imran Khan, who is leading an opposition convoy of thousands of supporters toward Islamabad, plans to use his march to spread “violence and chaos.”

Speaking to reporters in the Pakistani capital, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah, offered as evidence for his claim an audiotape with a discussion — purportedly between Ali Amin Gandapur, a close Khan aide, and an unidentified person — about “arranging weapons and men" near Islamabad.

The recording and Sanuallah's claim could not be independently verified. Khan, who is on the road leading his followers toward Islamabad, did not immediately react to the allegations.

Khan's convoy departed on Friday from the eastern city of Lahore. He stopped on Saturday in the suburban town of Shahdara nearby and was expected to reach Islamabad sometime next week.

Ousted in a no-confidence vote in Parliament in April, Khan has alleged that his ouster was a conspiracy engineered by his successor, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, and the United States — claims that both the new premier and Washington have denied.

Still, Khan — a former cricket star and national sports hero turned Islamist politician — remains a hugely popular figure and his convoy's journey, expected to be capped with an open-ended rally in Islamabad, could present a significant challenge to the new administration. The rally could potentially also turn violent if police move in to disperse Khan's supporters.

Khan has also been a vocal critic of Pakistan's powerful military establishment for supporting the current Sharif.

“We are not sheep, we are human beings and no one is going to accept neither the imported thieves of this government nor their facilitators,” Khan lashed out during a speech Saturday.

Khan has promised his march will remain peaceful and aimed at forcing Sharif to call early elections. The prime minster has repeatedly declined this, saying parliamentary elections will take place as scheduled in 2023.

The interior minister insisted Khan's real intentions are violent. “The long march is just a pretext, and actually he aims at creating divisions and destroying the country," Sanuallah said.

The minister further claimed Khan's men were amassing weapons and intend to “create a clash with law enforcement troops" in order to blame the government. He further said Gandapur, Khan's aide from the audio recording, would have been arrested if he was in Islamabad but that he is in the remote northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

“The nation should understand that this man wants to spread violence and chaos,” Sanuallah added and pledged that the government will fulfil its responsibility to protect the Pakistani capital and its residents.

“No one should object when we take stern action against them," he said of Khan's convoy. “Their plan to create chaos will fail."

Zarar Khan, The Associated Press