ISLAMABAD - Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan announced Sunday he would lead a massive anti-government 'peaceful march' on the national capital, Islamabad, later this week to press his demand for fresh elections.
Khan asked supporters of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party and Pakistanis at large to reach the city to join his rally starting Wednesday, saying it would ultimately turn into a sit-in protest and continue until his demands are met.
An opposition-led alliance ousted the cricketer-turned-politician from office last month in a parliamentary vote of no-confidence, ending his nearly four-year-old government. Khan's staunch political rival, Shehbaz Sharif, replaced him as the head of a new ruling coalition.
'We will never under any situation accept this government," Khan told a televised news conference in the northwestern city of Peshawar, while announcing his plan for the march. He warned authorities against forcefully blocking the rally.
"No matter how long we have to remain in Islamabad we will remain there until they dissolve the assemblies and announce a date for transparent elections that are without any foreign interference."
Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb criticized Khan's call for the protest march and rejected his demand for early elections, saying he "cannot bully the government to announce general elections at a time of his choice with his threats."
Aurangzeb said the new elections would be announced by her government in "collaboration and consensus with all allies."
Khan has addressed massive public rallies across the country since his downfall in a bid to garner support for the May 25 march. He dubbed it as a move to ensure Pakistan's political and foreign policy matters are guarded against external interventions.
The 69-year-old former leader Sunday renewed his accusations that the United States had conspired with his political opponents to bring down his government, charges Washington has rejected, along with Prime Minister Sharif.
Khan maintains he was punished for pursuing an independent foreign policy and ignoring Washington's advice against visiting Russia. Khan met with President Vladimir Putin on February 24, when Russian troops invaded Ukraine.
"We are not going to let propaganda, misinformation, and disinformation - lies - get in the way of any bilateral relationship we have, including with the bilateral relationship we have with Pakistan, one we value," State Department spokesman Ned Price told a regular news conference earlier this month.
Political tensions have increased in Pakistan at a time when the nascent Sharif government is struggling to deal with a deepening economic crisis, which stems from rising inflation.
The political uncertainty has led stocks to tumble. The Pakistani rupee is at a record low and foreign exchange reserves have rapidly depleted, adding pressure on the beleaguered coalition government.
Pakistan is trying to negotiate the remainder of a suspended $6 billion financial bailout package with the International Monetary Fund that's needed to help shore up dwindling foreign exchange reserves.
The IMF wants Islamabad to withdraw fuel and power subsidies as part of any agreement for financial assistance, a move that could fuel inflation and public anger against the government.