The rally comprising thousands of workers of the proscribed Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) left Kamoke and entered Gujranwala city on Thursday afternoon, as life in the areas surrounding its route continued to remain disrupted.
Some 4,000 TLP workers travelled on Grand Truck Road in large trucks and buses along with their supplies, as stick-wielding activists of the group guarded the procession from all sides.
The rally was expected to bypass Gujranwala city and continue its journey towards Islamabad after crossing the Qila Chand bypass. However, the procession continued on a straight path and reached Sheranwala Bagh in Gujranwala's Old Town.
Soon after reaching the inner city, the TLP protesters set up camp on GT Road, blocking the thoroughfare from Sheranwala to Lorry Adda. Markets in the vicinity were also closed down to avoid any untoward situation.
The protesters said they would spend the night in Gujranwala before leaving for Islamabad via Wazirabad and Gujrat in the morning.
The TLP demonstrators have blocked the GT Road in Gujranwala district from both sides since Wednesday, causing hardships to the area residents in their commutes. From Kamoke tehsil to Jhelum, cellular services have been suspended for 24 hours.
Educational institutions along GT Road have also been closed because of the uncertain situation.
'No talks till roads are cleared'
Meanwhile, Minister for Information and Broadcasting Fawad Chaudhry said that there would be no talks between the government and the banned group till they clear the roads and hand over those responsible for the deaths of police officials.
He called on "patriotic Pakistanis" to disassociate themselves from the protest, to return to their homes and not become a part of "terrorism" against the state.
Planning and Development Minister Asad Umar said that "murdering Muslim representatives of the state, destroying public property in your own country and creating chaos all in the name of religion is no service to religion".
"It is simply doing what the enemies of Pakistan and Muslims would want to see," he said.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has also summoned a meeting of the National Security Committee for tomorrow (Friday). According to the information minister, the meeting was summoned in light of the situation arising out of the "illegal activities" by the banned group.
Security beefed up near Wazirabad-Chenab river area
Meanwhile, Rangers and police personnel took positions near the Chenab river and Wazirabad border. Security officials plan to stop the TLP activists near the Wazirabad-Chenab river area instead of Gujranwala city, police sources earlier said.
In Wazirabad, local authorities have dug up trenches near the Chenab bridge which were further deepened to block the TLP march.
At a high-level meeting held to review the security situation, Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar directed officials to "take every step possible" to establish peace in the province, according to a statement.
He said nobody could be allowed to disturb people's daily lives, stressing that "the protection of people's lives and properties is the state's foremost responsibility."
In view of the situation caused by the TLP rally, the Pakistan Railways announced that three trains between Lahore and Rawalpindi — Subak Kharam, Islamabad Express and Rawal Express — would remain suspended today for both inbound and outbound services.
The Peshawar-Quetta Jaffar Express will also be suspended for the Peshawar-Lahore leg today, while the Green Line will remain suspended between Lahore and Rawalpindi.
All other trains will function according to their schedule and route, a PR spokesperson said.
Meanwhile, PML-N president and opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif criticised the government's handling of the situation arising out of the TLP rally, saying "federal ministers are giving contradictory statements on the prevailing situation."
He quoted a minister as saying that Prime Minister Imran Khan "was unaware of [the] 2020 agreement with TLP".
"There is a sheer chaos & lack of leadership & the government machinery is totally clueless. This is IK's way of governing Pakistan!!" Shehbaz wrote.
But Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari denied his allegation, calling Shehbaz a "confused soul" and saying the person he had quoted was not a federal minister.
"There is absolutely no confusion in the govt led by the PM as the cabinet decision yesterday made abundantly clear the position on TLP. Seems massive confusion persists in your information!" she wrote.
As security forces braced for more violence, one more policeman succumbed to injuries from yesterday's clashes with the TLP, Punjab Chief Minister's Focal Person for Digital Media Azhar Mashwani said on Thursday.
The policeman, identified as Ghulam Rasool, was posted in the province's Kasur district.
"He was injured in #TLPTerrorism on 27th October and was under treatment in THQ Hospital Muridke," Mashwani said in a tweet.
"These so-called lovers [of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)] did not even spare someone whose name was Ghulam Rasool," he wrote.
The developments come a day after the government decided to crush the TLP by all means and resolved that the army, Rangers and police would stop participants of its long march from entering the federal capital.
The decision was taken by the federal cabinet in its meeting presided over by Prime Minister Imran Khan following which Rangers were requisitioned in Punjab for 60 days to maintain law and order in the province.
The government categorically announced that it could not meet the TLP’s demand of closing down the French embassy in Pakistan and revealed that there was no French ambassador in the country.
“The cabinet has decided to treat TLP as a militant organisation and it will be crushed as other such groups have been eliminated. The Pakistani state has defeated major terrorist organisations such as Al Qaeda,” Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said at a post-cabinet meeting press conference.
The government's announcement had come after at least four police officials were killed and another 263 wounded, many of them seriously, when violent activists of the TLP clashed with police near Muridke and Sadhuke on Wednesday.
The fierce clashes broke out after the TLP tried to resume its march on Islamabad to pressurise the government to accept its demands.
Punjab Inspector General of Police Rao Sardar said the charged mob of the proscribed organisation martyred four police officials and injured 263 others.
While briefing the media, he said: “TLP activists were armed with automatic weapons and shot straight fire on the police,” The use of arms against the law-enforcement agencies by the banned outfit was a matter of serious concern, the IGP added.
On its part, the TLP claimed that two workers of the organisation had died in the clashes with police and 41 had been wounded.
A TLP spokesman said police had used excessive force against their peaceful rally. However, the group’s claim of deaths of its workers could not be confirmed independently.
Police said the TLP was trying to mislead the public by making false claims on social media and posting some video clips from the past.
TLP denies it was behind cops' deaths
In a statement on Thursday, the TLP Central Shura claimed that it was being held responsible for the deaths of three policemen but that they had died in a collision between a police van and a Mazda truck.
The statement also denied officials' statement that TLP workers had used weapons during the clashes, demanding proof of the same.
Additional reporting by Imtiaz Ali in Karachi