Islamabad: Tens of thousands of protesters led by fiery cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri today inched towards Islamabad demanding sweeping electoral reforms, as authorities put up barricades and deployed riot police turning the Pakistani capital into a virtual fortress.
Qadri, who began his "long march" in Lahore yesterday, was moving towards Islamabad with around 30,000 to 50,000 supporters, witnesses in Punjab province said. The figure was far short of Qadri's claim that millions would join his protest.
The cleric, who heads the Tehrik Minhaj-ul-Quran, returned to Pakistan last month after living in Canada for the past seven years.
Political parties have accused Qadri of acting as a front for the military and security establishment to delay this year's general election so that the term of an interim administration can be prolonged.
The cleric has shaken up political circles by demanding key electoral reforms, including the dissolution of the Election Commission and installation of a caretaker government after consultations with all political parties, army and judiciary.
Witnesses said Qadri's convoy, which was currently making its way through Punjab province at a very slow pace, consisted of over 200 vehicles, including trucks and buses.
Scores of women and children were among the protesters.
Hundreds of Qadri's supporters gathered at Constitution Avenue in the heart of Islamabad, where the march is expected to end.
Almost 10,000 policemen were deployed across Islamabad as part of security for the protest.
Most plazas and shops in Blue Area, the main commercial district of Islamabad, were closed.
Key roads and thoroughfares across Islamabad were blocked with empty containers and barricades.
Petrol pumps along the Islamabad-Rawalpindi highway were shut and public transport went off the roads, causing inconvenience to the residents of both cities.
Qadri was himself travelling in a bomb-proof SUV surrounded by police jeeps and armoured vehicles.
Authorities in Punjab province mobilised some 7,000 policemen, including commandos, to protect Qadri and his motorcade.
Mobile phone services were suspended along the route of the march to stop militant groups from using phones to detonate bombs.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik has warned that strict action will be taken against the protesters if they pose a threat to peace and security.
Malik also repeatedly warned of terror threats to the march.
Media reports said Qadri's group had finalised an agreement with the Islamabad administration to maintain law and order.
Under the agreement, the protesters will not be allowed to carry arms or behave in a disorderly fashion.
The protesters will also not be allowed to enter Islamabad's Red Zone, which is home to the diplomatic enclave and key buildings like the Presidency and Parliament.
Qadri has accused the ruling PPP and the opposition PML-N, which rules Punjab, of being corrupt and incompetent.
He has demanded that the electoral reforms should be finalised before polls scheduled to be held by May.
Qadri has threatened that his supporters could remain in Islamabad till the government acts on his demands.