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LAHORE: The caretaker Punjab government’s crackdown on the PML-N to prevent its workers from heading towards the airport to receive Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz could not yield desired results, as a large number of people turned out on the roads in solidarity with their leaders.

Several clashes took place between PML-N workers and police in Lahore and other districts of Punjab. Police tried to stop the main procession in Lahore at various points by placing containers some of which were removed by the charged party workers. In the ensuing clashes, over two dozen workers and 20 policemen were hurt.

Lahore witnessed a lockdown as police closed all entry points in a bid to stop PML-N supporters from reaching the city from other parts of the country. The procession that began on Friday afternoon from Lohari Gate was led by PML-N President Shahbaz Sharif from inside his bulletproof car that was driven by his son Hamza. Senior leaders Senator Pervaiz Rasheed, Marriyum Aurangzeb, Talal Chaudhry and Bilal Yasin travelled atop a container while the provincial leadership, including former assembly Speaker Rana Iqbal and Mayor retired Col Mubashir Javed, followed on another. Former railways minister Saad Rafique was travelling with the procession in his private car, shaking hands with supporters on the way.

With former chief minister Sharif inside the car, procession participants at Lohari Gate were assured through announcements from a speaker that he was among them and that they should proceed towards their destination. The rally grew when more workers joined in on The Mall. A charged group of youngsters moved ahead of the procession removing containers on the road.

“We are determined to reach the airport come what may as our beloved leader is coming,” said Sadiq Ahmed, who had come from Gujrat. Along with other young workers, he raised the slogan of ‘Punjab police zindabad’, but at the same time warned law enforcers not to stop them.

Ayub Bhutta, who reached Lohari Gate at 8am along with his three sons, said he would observe a hunger strike against the arrest of Nawaz and Maryam. “I cannot bear seeing my leader behind bars. I will fast till death to lodge my protest,” he told Dawn.

Members of the PML-N lawyers wing from various districts managed to reach Lahore conveniently. “A group of 15 lawyers from Pakpattan arrived here in the morning dodging police,” said Advocate Naeem Ashraf. He said the high court provided the PML-N relief by ordering release of its workers otherwise “we do not expect any good from the caretaker set-up”.

Lahore High Court acting chief justice Muhammad Anwarul Haq had ordered release of all “unlawfully detained” workers of the PML-N. Police admitted before the court that they had detained more than 370.

The convoy of former premier Shahid Khaqan Abbasi joined the procession on The Mall. However, the rally had only reached Faisal Square (The Mall) when Nawaz and Maryam landed at the Allama Iqbal International Airport and were arrested.

Feeling excited and satisfied over the number of people participating in the procession, Shahbaz Sharif said: “Today, a sea of people turned up in the rally and gave a verdict on the July 25 polls. I am thankful to the people of Lahore for coming out in a large number to prove that the accountability court’s decision against Nawaz Sharif was unjust.”

Meanwhile, at some points police did not stop the workers from removing containers. “We do not want a clash with the rally participants,” Deputy Superintendent of Police Iqbal Ahmed told Dawn at Regal Chowk.

As a group led by Khokhar brothers of Raiwind moved towards Joray Pul despite the arrival and arrest of Nawaz and Maryam, clashes broke out some five kilometres from the airport between the workers, police and Rangers.

The law enforcers fired teargas shells on the procession that included women and children while they were trying to remove hurdles on the way. The charged workers, in return, pelted the law enforcers with stones. “We have succeeded to reach this point (Joray Pul) but found Rangers deployed here and containers placed. As soon as we tried to move further, Rangers personnel stopped us and the clashes broke out,” said Zaheer, a political activist.

The area appeared to be a battlefield where many participants of the procession as well as security officials were injured. Teargas shells were fired again to disperse the crowd, but to no avail. “I have saved myself for now, but will go to see my quaid. They (law enforcement agencies) have set the worst precedent of oppression by reacting in such a brutal way,” said Muhammad Ikram, another worker.

“I will go to the airport by hook or by crook since my leader will address us,” Councillor Jamila Begum, 65, who was accompanied by her son on a motorcycle, told Dawn. “I know he and his daughter have been wrongly punished. The court verdict is biased.”

Meanwhile, Shahbaz Sharif’s son Suleman also tried to reach the airport along with his grandmother -- Begum Shamim Akhtar -- to see Nawaz and Maryam, but could not succeed.

Published in Dawn, July 14th, 2018