İrem Uzun -TDO- Pakistani opposition leaders have renewed their demands for Prime Minister Imran Khan to step down, terming his government illegitimate and incompetent, as thousands gathered at an anti-government protest in the capital Islamabad. Schools were closed, public transport suspended and internet services interrupted in several areas, a service provider said. The protest represents the first major challenge to Khan's administration as it struggles to quell simmering public anger over a faltering economy and double-digit inflation. "We are protesting to send these incapable rulers home... our people are unemployed and factories are shutting down," protester Abu Saeed Khan, who travelled to the capital from the northwestern city of Peshawar, said.

The so-called "Freedom March" is being led by Khan's long-time rival, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, who heads one of the country's largest Islamist parties - the JamiatUlema-e-Islam (JUI-F). As the first day of demonstrations stretched into the night, Rehman focused his ire on the country's powerful military, which he and other opposition figures have accused of helping Khan win last year's election. "They [the military] have not come to power on the public's mandate but on someone else's direction... they won't work for the public rather they will only please their selectors," Rehman told his supporters from a makeshift stage. Rehman, an influential cleric, insists that Khan must be removed from office and a new "free and fair" election held.

As protesters massed in the capital, Khan slammed Rehman during a televised speech in the northern city of Gilgit, vowing to prosecute the cleric for alleged corruption. He told the protesters congregated in Islamabad that when theyrun out of food, more will be sent to them, but their leaders should not expect any relief from him. "Those who make money in the name of Islam have been exposed," Khan told a thousand-strong crowd of cheering supporters. "I have promised to Allah I will send all those to jail who looted the country".

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