Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan told thousands of supporters at an anti-government rally that he would fight until his “last drop of blood,” but he called off a planned march to the capital, Islamabad, saying he wanted to avoid “havoc” in the country. He also dropped his demands for early elections.
"I have decided not to go to Islamabad because I know there will be havoc, and the loss will be to the country," Khan told a gathering of thousands of supporters in Rawalpindi outside the capital on November 26.
The government “cannot deal with a march in Islamabad. They can call as many police as they want, but they cannot stop the hundreds of thousands from entering Islamabad,” Khan said.
"We could have created a situation like Sri Lanka. I have decided against marching on Islamabad because I don’t want there to be anarchy in the country. I don't want to cause any harm to this country."
Khan said his party would quit the country's regional and national assemblies. The party resigned from the national assembly in April, although most of the resignations have not yet been accepted.
He also reversed his position on his demand for snap elections and vowed that his party would be victorious in the vote scheduled for next year.
He asked his supporters to leave peacefully after the rally in a move that could potentially ease the immediate political crisis in the nation of some 225 million people.
The comments followed a warning by the government that he should not give a public speech because of what it called security threats and came weeks after he survived an assassination attempt at a previous protest march.
"I have seen death from up close," he said, speaking from behind bulletproof glass amid a massive security presence.
"I'm more worried about the freedom of Pakistan than my life," he told the crowd. "I will fight for this country until my last drop of blood."
Some 10,000 troops were deployed to Rawalpindi and the region ahead of the event to help control crowds and ensure safety, officials said.
Khan was ousted from the premiership by a vote of no confidence in parliament in April. Khan claims that his removal from power was unlawful and the result of a conspiracy by his political opponents orchestrated by the United States, a charge denied by both Washington and Khan’s successor, Shehbaz Sharif.
The rally in Rawalpindi -- a garrison city near the capital and home to the headquarters of Pakistan’s powerful military -- was the first time Khan, 70, has attended a rally since he was shot and wounded during a protest march in the eastern city of Wazirabad on November 3.
The protest in Rawalpindi is seen as the climax of a so-called "long march" by Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) party to demand early elections before parliament's term expires in October next year.
It started in late October with thousands of his supporters marching toward Islamabad for what was to be an open-ended rally until his demands were met. The government has rejected the call for an early vote, saying the elections will be held as scheduled in 2023.
Khan suspended the march following the Wazirabad attack that killed one of his supporters and wounded 13 people, including two lawmakers. Khan’s supporters blocked roads in cities across Pakistan for several days, often clashing with police.
Pakistani Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah said on November 25 that Khan should delay the resumption of the rallies, stating that there had been threats of attacks from militant groups. Sanaullah warned that Khan faces "danger" to his life.
Khan, however, said that he would go ahead with the planned march.
"My life is in danger, and despite being injured I am going to Rawalpindi for the nation," PTI quoted Khan as saying early on November 26. "My nation will come to Rawalpindi for me."
Buildings overlooking the site of the rally in Rawalpindi were searched by police overnight, while snipers were perched on rooftops surveying the protesters carrying red and green banners.
Roads leading to the city were blocked by shipping containers to prevent Khan's supporters from marching on government buildings.