Islamabad: Intensifying his agitation for the ouster of Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, opposition leader Imran Khan on Tuesday night marched with thousands of his supporters towards the heavily fortified `Red Zone`, a key diplomatic and political enclave here, raising fears of clashes with the army and other security forces.
Khan and Canada-based firebrand cleric Tahirul Qadri have been protesting for the last six days demanding Prime Minister Sharif`s resignation, putting the PML-N-led government on the backfoot.
"Promise me, if something were to happen to me, you will take revenge from Nawaz Sharif," Khan said while addressing his supporters before starting his march towards the Red Zone that houses important government buildings including the Parliament House, Prime Minister House, President House, the Supreme Court besides embassies of various countries.
Army contingents had taken positions in the Red Zone with the 111 Brigade -- often been used to secure Islamabad as well as used in military takeovers -- deployed in the area.
Fearing any untoward incident taking place if the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) or the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) enter the Red Zone, Lieutenant General Qamar Bajwa, Commander 10 Corps, contacted top officials of the Islamabad Police for coordination to ensure security of key government installations located on Constitution Avenue.
The PTI chief strictly prohibited the protesters from entering into or occupying any building located in the Diplomatic Enclave including the Parliament House.
"We will only march peacefully towards the `illegal` Parliament House and stage a sit-in in front of it. We will convert the Red Zone into the Green Zone," he said.
"Our Azadi March is constitutional & democratic," the cricketer-turned-politician, who spent the night in a shipping container at the site of the sit-in, said.
Qadri also started his march towards the sensitive Red Zone. He announced in the evening that he will breach the high security zone.
The government has so far forbidden protesters from breaching the Red Zone.
Khan is protesting the alleged vote rigging in last year`s polls. In the polls, Sharif`s PML-N had won 190 out of 342 seats. Khan`s PTI got 34 seats, the third largest bloc in the legislature.
There are fears that any attempt by marchers to the Red Zone could lead to confrontation.
Security has been tightened in the area after Khan called on marchers to enter it to stage a peaceful protest in the `fake` (National) assembly and `fake` Prime Minister House.
More than 40,000 security personnel have been deployed to protect the sensitive areas.
Pakistan Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar said the government has decided to hand over the security of the `Red Zone` to army to prevent protesters from entering it.
"We have decided to hand the security of Islamabad`s Red Zone to the army," he said.
Nisar said the three-layered security cordon of police, paramilitary Rangers and army will protect any breach of the `Red Zone`.
The announcement came after Army Chief General Raheel Sharif met the Prime Minister to discuss the security of the sensitive area in the capital. They agreed to deploy army to keep peace in the `Red Zone`.
As some diplomatic missions expressed reservations over the security arrangements, the Foreign Office briefed the foreign diplomats and assured them that government will provide them full security, Nisar said.
Khan`s party yesterday decided to withdraw its lawmakers from the National Assembly and all provincial assemblies except Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Meanwhile, Qadri also announced that he will set up an alternate Parliament to press Sharif to quit and refused to meet the PML-N government-appointed committee of lawmakers to hold talks with him.
Qadri said he will also organise a sit-in protest in front of the parliament in the Red Zone.
He presented his agenda before the charged crowd and asked them to say `yes or no` and they resounded approval through big `yes`.
Qadri did not spell out the criteria for constituting the Awami Parliament but said its decisions will be respected.
"The Awami Parliament will decide the future course of action and the destiny of the nation is going to change," he said.
Qadri has already declared the existing parliament a sham as it consisted of "tainted" lawmakers who came to power through "rigged elections".
The government has accused the protesters of attempting to derail democracy yet have also offered talks on their concerns, but these have been rejected.
Other opposition figures have criticised the demonstrations and Khan`s call for people to stop paying tax bills in protest at the government.
The political instability comes at a time when Pakistan is waging a war against militants - particularly in the restive tribal regions along its border with Afghanistan.
The army, which has already been handed over the security of capital for three months, has a history of capturing power from democratically elected governments.
In its 67-year history, Pakistan has witnessed three coups, including one against Sharif in 1999 by the then army chief General Parvez Musharraf.