LAHORE, Pakistan - A Pakistani court on Thursday (March 16) rejected former Prime Minister Imran Khan's plea to suspend an arrest warrant issued against him, stoking fears of a renewed confrontation between his supporters and security forces.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, hundreds of Khan's supporters, armed with batons, iron-rods and sling-shots, had surrounded his home in Lahore and fought pitched battles with security forces attempting to arrest him.
Thursday's rejection of Khan's bid to have the arrest warrant suspended came hours after a higher court had ordered police to postpone the operation to arrest the former cricket star until Friday, bringing a temporary lull in the stand-off.
The arrest warrant was issued by a court in Islamabad when Khan failed to appear before it over charges that he unlawfully sold state gifts given to him by foreign dignitaries when he was prime minister from 2018 to 2022. Khan denies the charges.
The Election Commission of Pakistan had found him guilty and barred Khan from holding public office for one parliamentary term.
Khan, 70, had filed an appeal with the Islamabad court to suspend the warrant, submitting an undertaking that he would appear before it voluntarily on Saturday.
But the court said such an undertaking was insufficient, given Khan's previous conduct.
"It is concluded that the application is not justified by law as well as fact, which is hereby rejected," said the Islamabad court's order, which was seen by Reuters.
'Militants in crowd'
The violence in Khan's Lahore neighbourhood, in which protesters torched police vehicles, a water-cannon truck and scores of cars and motorcycles and hurled petrol bombs at security forces firing tear gas and rubber bullets, raised fears of a new political stand-off in nuclear-armed Pakistan, which is already grappling with an economic crisis.
The trouble subsided after the Lahore high court halted the police operation.
Police said they would seek further directions from the high court on Friday.
Provincial information minister Amir Mir said there were militants among Khan's supporters outside his house.
"We have received credible reports that militants were amongst the people who attacked police," he told a news conference. "One of them has served eight years in prison."
Khan's aide Shafqat Mehmood dismissed that as a "fabricated story, based on lies".
Although there were no police outside Khan's home on Thursday, witnesses said supporters armed with batons, bamboo sticks, iron rods and cutters had set up pickets and barricades.
Punjab province police chief Usman Anwar said he had sent police only to comply with the court order.
"We used restraint as much as we could," he said. He added criminal cases had been registered against those committing acts of violence.
The police were unarmed, he said, adding they had to use water-cannons and teargas shells when Khan's supporters turned violent.
The legal proceedings against Khan began after he was ousted from office in a parliamentary vote early last year. Since then, he has been demanding a snap election and holding nationwide protest rallies, and was shot and wounded in one of those rallies.
Current Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has rejected Khan's demands, saying an election would be held as scheduled later this year.