Pakistani police arrested hundreds of supporters of opposition parties ahead of a planned rally Monday calling for the country's prime minister to resign, a move the government defended as necessary to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
Police acknowledged arresting over 370 people, while opposition groups put the number at more than 1,800 in Multan, a city in central Pakistan where authorities had switched off the area's mobile phone network.
Security forces placed shipping containers on major roads Sunday night to block off the path to a public park where the opposition planned to protest against Prime Minister Imran Khan. Opposition leaders marched to the park despite that, setting off clashes that led to the arrests.
Those arrested included Ali Musa Gillani, the son of a former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani.
The streets remain tense Monday ahead of the planned rally time.
Khan's government blamed the pandemic as the reason for blocking the protest, though security forces over recent months have repeatedly disrupted opposition events and arrested its leaders. The pandemic so far has infected a reported 398,000 people and killed over 8,000 since February.
"The opposition is doing politics at the cost of people's lives," government spokeswoman Firdous Ashiq Awan said.
The rally was expected to draw Maryam Nawaz, the daughter of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has been living in exile in London since 2019 after leaving Pakistan on a court order allowing his medical treatment abroad. At the time, a court permitted Sharif to leave the country for four weeks, but he did not return.
Pakistan's military has ruled the country of 220 million people - directly or indirectly - for most of its history. Successive attempts at protracted democracy have been interrupted by military coups, the last one in 1999.
Pakistanis went to the polls in 2008 and elected their first civilian government in 12 years. There's been three consecutive elections after that. The military and intelligence services maintain a tight grip on the country's politics and are believed to back Khan, who came to power in 2018.
Maryam Nawaz told reporters on Monday that she was not afraid of arrest and that the opposition's rally will take place at all costs.
"There is no doubt that this government will no more be in power in the coming days, God willing, and I have no doubt about it," she said.