Pakistani police launched a nation-wide crackdown overnight, arresting at least 1,500 supporters of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan ahead of an opposition rally planned later this week in Islamabad, officials said Monday.
The arrests followed intermittent clashes over the weekend between Khan's supporters and riot police in the capital that saw police using tear gas and batons to fight stone-throwing protesters.
The violence erupted again Monday when police fired tear gas at nearly 3,000 supporters on a main highway some 80 kilometres (50 miles) northwest of Islamabad. Khan's party rules in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and its chief minister, Pervez Khattak, and some cabinet ministers led the protesters.
Police official Hussain Awan said the protesters pelted police with stones and bricks, burned several vehicles and chanted slogans against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Pakistani Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan had warned Sunday that the government would extend protocol to Khattak if he arrived in the capital formally but that he would be dealt with strictly if he led the protesters.
Amnesty International expressed concern over the situation demanding that Pakistani authorities release opposition activists and allow demonstrators to exercise their right to peaceful assembly.
"Pakistan's authorities must immediately and unconditionally release hundreds of opposition activists, lift restrictions on their movement," Amnesty said in a statement. "If sporadic incidents of violence occur, the authorities should identify the responsible people. Using the violent acts of a few as a pretext to restrict or impede the rights of a majority is in clear violation of Pakistan's obligations under international law."
On Monday, a Pakistani court barred Khan's followers from demonstrating on Islamabad streets, restricting the rally to within the limits of a city park, said government prosecutor Saddique Awan. Last week, the government imposed a two-month ban on street rallies in the capital.
Khan's attorney Babar Awan said the party would appeal. The party has called for massive street demonstrations for Wednesday, threatening to lock down Islamabad in a bid to force Sharif to resign.
Sharif has been under pressure after his family members were named as holders of offshore bank accounts in leaked financial documents from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca.
Police have conducted raids based on tips and information about planned violence, said government spokesman Zaeem Qadri. Those who pledge not to take part in violent actions are released, while those considered a threat remain in custody pending charges, he said.
Two security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media, said the number of those arrested overnight ranges between 1,500 and 1,800. Punjab provincial law minister Rana Sanaullah said 838 Khan supporters were arrested.
Police have already placed shipping containers on key highways leading to Islamabad to stop convoys of Khan supporters from reaching the capital.
The interior minister said Khan's followers had violent plans, which included the storming of government offices.