LAHORE, Pakistan - Pakistan police appeared Wednesday to have given up an attempt to arrest former prime minister Imran Khan, ending a siege of his residence after violent clashes with hundreds of his supporters.
AFP correspondents and witnesses near Khan's home in the plush Zaman Park suburb of Lahore said police and paramilitary rangers had retreated after abandoning a series of roadblocks and checkpoints.
Former Pakistan's prime minister Imran Khan speaks during an interview with AFP at his residence in Lahore on March 15, 2023. Former Pakistan prime Minister Imran Khan on March 15 said the government wanted him behind bars in order to stop him taking part in elections due later this year.
(Aamir QURESHI / AFP)
"The police and rangers sent to harm Imran Khan were pushed back by the people," his official Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party tweeted, along with video of supporters celebrating outside his house.
Police had fought pitched battles with Khan's supporters throughout the night, firing fusillades of teargas and dodging rocks thrown by angry crowds.
Groups of police were seen running in disarray from the direction of the house Wednesday afternoon.
Khan was ousted from office by a no-confidence vote last year, and has been snarled in dozens of legal cases as he campaigns for early elections and a return to office.
Official PTI social media accounts showed video of Khan greeting dozens of people inside his garden, and jubilant supporters celebrating outside.
“The reason why this is happening is not because I broke any law. They want me in jail so that I cannot contest elections," he told AFP in an interview at his home.
"This abduction had nothing to do with rule of law. It had everything against rule of law, the law of jungle to grab me and put me in jail and keep me in jail for months, because there was so many cases, they would have just kept me in jail.
"And the whole idea was to miss the elections.
Police insist they have a warrant to arrest Khan following his failure to appear before an Islamabad court on graft charges, but the former premier and his lawyers say he has been granted bail on the charge.
"The PTI leader does not have protective bail for this particular case," Muhammad Taqi Jawad, spokesman for Islamabad police, told AFP.
He said the arrest warrant would stand and denied police had retreated, adding: "Our actions will strictly adhere to the law, and we are committed to fulfilling our duty.
- Residence ringed -
On Wednesday morning hundreds of PTI supporters had ringed Khan's residence in the plush neighbourhood, holding off fresh attempts by police to storm the premises.
Video circulating on social media -- much distributed by official PTI accounts -- showed several bloodied supporters and others struggling to cope with tear gas.
A PTI official tweeted that there was "an urgent need" for first aid kits at the Zaman Park neighbourhood.
Khan later tweeted pictures of bullet casings purportedly collected from the scene, but a Punjab government official denied live rounds were fired.
The Islamabad High Court was meeting Wednesday to hear a fresh petition from PTI to prevent Khan's arrest, which could defuse the situation.
Khan, 70, has been summoned to court to answer accusations he did not declare gifts received during his time as prime minister, or the profit made from selling them.
Officers first made an attempt to arrest him earlier this month, but said the politician was "reluctant to surrender", without offering further details.
Khan has been pressuring the coalition government that replaced him, led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, with popular rallies and daily addresses.
Sharif said on Wednesday that Khan considered himself "above the law.”
"He is defying each and every court of the country. It's naked defiance," he told reporters.
Last year the former international cricket star was shot in the leg during a political rally, an assassination bid he blamed on Sharif.
As the political drama unfolds ahead of an election due by October, Pakistan is in the grip of a stark economic downturn, risking default if help cannot be secured from the International Monetary Fund.
The security situation is also deteriorating with a spate of deadly attacks on police headquarters, linked to the Pakistani Taliban.
"The standoff in Lahore reflects the worst state of affairs in the country," said Tauseef Ahmed Khan, an author, political analyst and human rights activist.
"On one side, it is failure of police and the law enforcement agencies... on the other, this has been a new trend in the South Asian politics -- that a political leader is defying the arrest by using his workers and supporters."