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Former Pakistan PM Imran Khan launches 'long march' for early elections

Supporters of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) dance before the start of an anti-government long march towards Islamabad to demand early elections in Lahore .(AFP photo)

Former Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan launched a so-called "long march" in the capital Islamabad on Friday in order to press the incumbent government to hold early elections.

The cricketer-turned-politician was ousted in April through a no-confidence vote after some of his coalition partners defected. He called it a "regime change plot" hatched by the United States. 

Thousands of people are expected to join the march next week, according to reports, as it will cover about 380 kilometers (240 miles) from Lahore to Islamabad, stopping along the way to hold rallies and gather more protesters.

Security measures have been intensified in the capital and hundreds of shipping containers have been placed at important intersections and are ready to deal with protesters if they attack the areas covered by the government.

The Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) government says polls will be held as scheduled in October next year. Khan, however, is not willing to wait.

"We need to rid the country of looters and thieves who are taking the country's money for their own interests," Muhammad Mazhar, 36, who arrived in Lahore on Friday to take part, was quoted as saying.

During a similar demonstration in May, clashes broke out between Khan's supporters and police forces.

The latest march comes as Pakistan's government struggles to revive a crumbling economy and deal with the aftermath of devastating floods that have submerged a third of the country — as well as a repair bill of at least $30 billion.

On Thursday, the head of the country's main intelligence service and the army's public relations chief defended the institutions against Khan's accusations of meddling in politics in an unprecedented press conference.

"I am not afraid of anything including arrest," Khan said in a video message released Thursday night. "People want just one role of the establishment... free and fair elections as this is the only way out".

Last week, Pakistan's election commission disqualified Khan from holding public office for five years on charges of unlawfully selling government gifts he received from foreign dignitaries and concealing his assets.

Pakistan's law minister Azam Nazir Tarar said the commission found Khan guilty of the charges and disqualified him from holding public office for five years.

Khan was voted into power in 2018 on the promise of fighting corruption, but his mishandling of the economy didn't help his case. 

Despite being ousted from power, Khan’s popularity has increased, which was reflected in by-elections held recently in Punjab where Khan’s party swept the polls. The unexpected victory by Khan’s party allowed them to regain control of Punjab province.

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