After criticism over anti-army remarks, former prime minister Imran Khan said on Sunday that his party wants the Pakistan Army to be "strong" and his "constructive" criticism was not intended to harm the powerful force as he demanded early elections to end the political impasse in the country.
On the third day of his long march dubbed as 'Haqeeqi Azadi March', the 70-year-old chief of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf led his supporters towards Islamabad while addressing them at various places, targeting his opponents for alleged corruption.
Addressing his supporters, Khan said that his criticism against the establishment had been constructive.
"I want the army to be strong. We need a strong army. My constructive criticism is not [intended] to harm them," he asserted.
Khan also clarified that he was being misunderstood, days after he was criticised by the government for his anti-army stance that made headlines in Pakistan and India.
"India don't misunderstand, we stand with our army," he said, adding that the neighbouring country was celebrating after the spy agency ISI chief Lt Gen Nadeem Anjum's press conference as it believes that the army and Imran Khan are having "a face-off".
"I want to tell India that this army is ours and I can never be against it," he said.
The powerful army, which has ruled the coup-prone country for more than half of its 75-plus years of existence, has hitherto wielded considerable power in the matters of security and foreign policy.
Last week, Khan had admitted that he offered an extension in the tenure of Army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa in March amid the opposition's attempt to topple his government.
Khan's remarks came after the ISI chief revealed at an unprecedented press conference on Thursday last that the army chief was given a "lucrative offer" for an indefinite extension in his tenure in March.
"If establishment believes that we should support these thieves, since you have decided to support these thieves, then sorry myself and this nation cannot support this move,” Khan said in his address at Sadhoki.
Khan also rejected as "untrue" claims made by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif that the opposition leader sent him a message expressing his desire to have consultation over appointment of the army chief and elections.
"Shehbaz Sharif, you gave a statement that I sent a message to you that we should sit together and decide about the army chief… look Shehbaz Sharif listen to me I don't talk to boot polishers," Khan said in his address at Muridke.
Prime Minister Sharif has claimed that he has flatly rejected a proposal from his predecessor on the appointment of a successor to Army chief General Bajwa.
Bajwa, 61, who is on a three-year extension, is set to retire on November 29.
Responding to Shehbaz, Khan further questioned "what is the benefit of talking to you? What do you have to talk about?...The way you were brought in power, at first you begged the Americans then you hid in the trunk of a car, and then polished boots,” he alleged.
Khan reiterated his party's demand for free and fair elections, saying "we only want fair and transparent elections and we will accept whatever the people of Pakistan decide." He also asked the chief justice to establish the rule of law. “These people who are sitting on top of the law, bring them under the law,” he asked the chief justice.
He also mentioned the alleged custodial torture of his party leaders Shahbaz Gill and Azam Swati for which he has been criticizing the army and demanding probe.
“No institution is allowed to break the law of this country,” he said in a veiled reference to the powerful army.
Another popular theme which has been echoing in the long march is the murder of journalist Arshad Sharif in Kenya on the last Sunday night.
"The one who opens his mouth, who raises the voice of truth… Arshad Sharif… he is forced to leave this country… he is threatened, he is killed, just because he was standing on the right path,” he said.
The marchers plan to reach Islamabad on March 4 and PTI leader Fawad Chaudhry said that according to his estimation 1-1.5 million people will reach Islamabad.
Meanwhile, the long march was called off for the day after a female journalist, identified as Channel 5 reporter Sadaf Naeem, died after being crushed under Khan's container.
"We are ending today's march due to an accident. We have decided to stop here,” Khan said.
The long march would start from Kamoke on its fourth day on Monday. Earlier, it was planned to reach Gujranwala by the end of its third day.
Geo News reported that Sadaf was hit by the container carrying Khan.
She was trying to interview Khan for her TV channel, Dunya TV reported.
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, while reacting to the death of the journalist, said that he was deeply saddened by the death of the reporter.
Information Minister Maryyium Aurangzeb expressed shock over Sadaf's death and questioned how the reporter was run over by the container-carrying truck used by Khan.
The government has set up a 13-member committee to deal with protesters. The committee is headed by interior minister Rana Sanaullah and comprises leaders from the parties which are in the coalition government.
The committee will hold its first meeting on Monday to discuss the protest march.
Defence Minister Khawaja Asif said on social media that elections would be held at the constitutional time and there is “no possibility of negotiations with Khan's party.
Khan has promised to remain peaceful, and stay from the high security Red Zone housing state buildings and embassies, but many doubt his pronouncements due to past history of U-turns.
He has sought permission to hold the rally which has not been granted yet as the capital administration has sought an explanation from PTI leaders over violations of terms and conditions during its previous public gathering on May 25 in Islamabad.
The government has also asked the party to specify the places for their gathering and also inform the administration the time of calling off the protest, the tentative number of participants and what will be the exact route through which participants of the long march will enter Islamabad.
The government has taken elaborate security measures to deal with the situation as there is fear the violence may erupt if the marchers were forcibly stopped to enter the city.
Khan has been demanding early elections and he is leading the long march towards Islamabad to force his demands. The term of the National Assembly will end in August 2023 and fresh elections should be held within 60 days.
Khan, who was ousted from power in April after losing a no-confidence vote in his leadership, has talked about a 'threat letter' from the US and claimed that it was part of a foreign conspiracy to remove him as he was not acceptable for following an independent foreign policy. The US has bluntly rejected the allegations.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)