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Crowds throng Imran Khan rally in Pakistan

(AFP) / 30 October 2011

LAHORE, Pakistan A crowd of thousands gathered Sunday for a rally in the Pakistani city of Lahore called by cricket hero turned politician Imran Khan to press President Asif Ali Zardari to step down.

Dancing to a drumbeat and waving the party’s red and green flags, supporters of Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) filled the sprawling Minar-e-Pakistan ground which was ringed with tight security.

‘Who will save Pakistan? Imran Khan, Imran Khan,’ the crowd chanted.

More than 20,000 people had gathered as the meeting began at 4pm (1100 GMT) with more on the way, according to witnesses, as the crowd waited for a scheduled appearance by their hero.

Khan’s party slogan is ‘throw this government out and save the country,’ in a campaign aimed at the ruling coalition led by Zardari and the party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Khan, who guided Pakistan a World Cup win 1992, brims with confidence that he can solve Pakistan’s myriad and devastating problems.

But his party has no seats in parliament and it is criticised for lacking grassroots support and the infrastructure needed to win an election.

The rally, seen as a show of strength, comes two days after Sharif’s brother Shahbaz, attracted some 30,000 people at an anti-Zardari protest also in the key political battleground of Lahore.

Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) held on Friday to demand early elections in its political heartland — it controls the Punjab provincial government despite being in opposition at national level.

Party faithful denounced corruption and widespread power cuts, calling on the 56-year-old president, dubbed ‘Mr Ten Percent’ over graft allegations, to step down before the government’s five-year mandate expires in 2013.

The venue for Khan’s public meeting was bedecked with banners and hoardings showing portraits of the former cricketer and the founder of the nation Muhammad Ali Jinnah. He was due to apeak later.

Tehreek-e-Insaf Secretary General Arif Ali said Khan ‘will make important announcements regarding the country’s politics and future course of action.’

‘The wind of change of has started in the country and anyone coming in its way would be eliminated,’ Alvi said and added ‘Tehreek-e-Insaf wants the rule of people constitution and law in the country.’

‘It is going to be historic. We have our supporters and voters coming from Lahore and its suburban areas and the expected gathering would be over 100,000 people,’ Malik Zaheer Abbas Khokhar, a member of the party’s organising committee said.

Lahore, with a population of eight million, is Pakistan’s second-biggest city and the capital of the most populous province Punjab, which commands the greatest number of seats in the national assembly or lower house of parliament.

That makes it bitterly contested territory where opposition leaders are targeting the unpopular Zardari.

They are looking to exploit disillusionment with the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) which swept to power in February 2008, two months after Zardari’s wife, ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated.

The party had expressed some concerns about inadequate security arrangements and blocking of the convoys coming from other cities.

‘We have been reassured by the provincial police chief about the security of the gathering and smooth flow of traffic for our convoys,’ Khokhar told AFP.

Senior police official Ghulam Mahmood Dogar told reporters that all steps had been taken to provide ‘fool-proof’ security at the public meeting.

Around 2,000 Pakistanis led by Khan demonstrated in Islamabad on Friday to demand an end to US drone strikes in the tribal areas, claiming they kill more innocent civilians than Taleban and Al Qaeda leaders.

 
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