LAHORE: Former Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan launched a so-called "long march" Friday on the capital Islamabad to demand early elections, piling pressure on a government already in crisis.
The former international cricket star was booted from office in April by a no-confidence vote after defections by some of his coalition partners, but he retains mass public support in the South Asian country.
Thousands of people gathered in the eastern city of Lahore, from where a convoy began the 380-kilometre journey to the capital, expected to take around a week with rallies planned along the route.
"We need to rid the country of looters and thieves who are taking the country's money for their own interests," said supporter Muhammad Mazhar, 36.
"We need to save the country and change this system, so I am supporting Imran Khan."
Khan was voted into power in 2018 on an anti-corruption platform by an electorate tired of dynastic politics.
But his mishandling of the economy -- and falling out with a military accused of helping his rise -- sealed his fate.
Since then, he has railed against the establishment and Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif's government, which he says was imposed on Pakistan by a "conspiracy" involving the United States.
"This nation is ready to make every sacrifice but it will not accept thieves. The objective of the march is that decisions should be taken by the people themselves," Khan told the crowd from the top of a shipping container.
Parts of his speech that addressed the heads of the military and intelligence services were censored by Pakistani television channels.
Khan, who has dodged multiple legal challenges, has already staged a string of well-attended rallies demonstrating his popularity, and earlier this month won six out of eight by-elections.
Sadia Mehmood, a 21-year-old university student, said she was marching to restore democracy.
"The army is already scared, and the criminals in Islamabad are worried and they should be worried," she said. "Their time is up."
The political wrangling has overshadowed relief efforts following the devastating floods that left a third of the country under water -- and a repair bill of at least $30 billion.
Pakistan's economy also remains in a dire state, with high inflation, a nose-diving rupee and dwindling foreign exchange reserves.
On Thursday, the head of the country's main intelligence service and chief of military public relations held an unprecedented press conference where they defended the institutions against Khan's accusations they were meddling in politics.
Pakistan has been ruled by the military for much of its 75-year history, and criticism of the security establishment has long been seen as a red line.
The establishment has been under further scrutiny this week following the killing of journalist Arshad Sharif by police in Kenya, where he had fled to avoid sedition charges.
Kenyan officials say Sharif's death was a case of mistaken identity, but it has spawned speculation of a targeted killing and the Pakistan government has ordered an official inquiry.
The funeral of Sharif -- a strident critic of Pakistan's military establishment -- was attended by tens of thousands of Khan supporters chanting "Arshad, your blood will bring revolution". -- AFP