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Pakistan capital braces for Islamist march

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Islamabad (AFP)

Schools were shuttered and entry points to Islamabad sealed off Thursday as thousands of Islamist protesters aiming to unseat the government converged on the Pakistan capital.

Police and paramilitary troops used shipping containers to block several major traffic arteries between the capital and the neighbouring city of Rawalpindi ahead of the march, causing traffic jams and frustrating commuters.

"The main entry points were closed to ensure the safety of the citizens and government offices," Islamabad police spokesperson Zia Bajwa told AFP, saying a 17,000-strong force was overseeing security in the capital.

The "Azadi (Freedom) March" is led by Prime Minister Imran Khan's long-time rival Maulana Fazlur Rehman, who heads the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F), one of the country’s largest Islamist parties.

The march represents the first major challenge to Prime Minister Imran Khan's government as his administration battles rising public anger over a faltering economy and double-digit inflation.

Rehman and thousands of supporters departed Jhelum district -- some 126 kilometres (78 miles) east of the capital Islamabad -- earlier Thursday, party spokesman Abdul Jalil Jan told AFP.

A second group was due to leave from the northwestern city of Peshawar en route to the capital, where the two convoys would converge late Thursday evening.

JUI-F said Rehman would then oversee Friday prayers with the protesters before launching a demonstration in the capital.

The cleric insists that Khan needs to be removed from office, and a new "free and fair" election held.

However, the group has remained vague about what tactics they plan to use.

Ahead of the march, social media users panned Rehman and his followers over their refusal to allow women to participate, questioning their commitment to democratic principles.

"Looking at the 'Azadi March' from afar, one thing is clear to me. In the democracy that Maulana sahib is (fighting) for, women would have no place," tweeted Marvi Sirmad.

"Ask yourselves dear democrats, do we want THIS?"

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