ISLAMABAD - The federal government on Thursday said it would provide utilities and security to marchers led by the JUI-F at the protest venue in Islamabad, but would not allow anyone to cross the red line and create unrest.

“We are going all out in our efforts to make them (protesters) comfortable,” said Interior Minister Brigadier (retd) Ijaz Ahmed Shah while addressing a press conference along with Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Information and Broadcasting Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan.

Backed by other opposition parties, JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman is holding “Azadi March”, challenging Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government and labelling it as “illegitimate”. Caravans of protest marchers set off from different parts of the country last Sunday to reach Islamabad on October 31 where the opposition is scheduled to hold a rally today after Friday prayers.

“We have expanded the area of the protest venue…they will feel as if they are staying at Pearl Continental,” the interior minister said. He claimed that 20,000 to 25,000 marchers who left different parts of the country on October 27 are now staying in Gujar Khan, 62 kilometres from Islamabad.

Once all marchers reach the venue, the government would provide full security to them. He said the JUI-F chief would be given special security as he had survived terrorist attacks in the past and his custom-made container has been given a separate route to reach the protest venue without any difficulty.

“PM Imran Khan has decided that he is going to deal with this dharna (sit-in) politically, not administratively,” Shah claimed in his first-ever press conference after he took charge of his position earlier this year.

The interior minister, a former intelligence czar, warned that law violators would be dealt with according to the law if anyone violates the 37-point code of conduct signed by the JUI-F and the government.

“Power of the state could not be violated by people. It is not a banana republic…what are you talking about,” he said while responding to a journalist who asked if the government was afraid of Azadi March, which the minister labelled as “Maulana’s march.”

He made it clear that the government was still clueless of the plans of the Maulana. When asked how the government would react if he stages a sit-in, the minister said nothing could be pre-conceived in the rules of business, and the administration. “But if someone crosses the red line, rules of business clearly tell what action has to be taken.”

During the last four days of the march, the government has facilitated the protesters with water and electricity and given them traffic plans to avoid any untoward incident for their safe journey to Islamabad, said Shah. He said that all arrangements have been finalised at the venue for the protesters who are reaching there through different designated routes of Islamabad.

In the start, the minister began by reminding reporters that this was not the first time that protesters are marching on Islamabad.

“The PM said that whoever follows the Supreme Court decision penned by Justice Qazi Faez Isa and another decision of the Islamabad High Court in this regard is most welcome to Islamabad,” the interior minister said. This announcement surprised those who wanted unrest in Pakistan or who wanted to fire shots from Maulana’s shoulders, he added.

Dr Firdous said the government had allowed a peaceful protest and would provide security to residents of the capital, including at least 7,000 members of the diplomatic corps. She pointed out that diplomatic corps project Pakistan’s image internationally, therefore, any unrest would not be allowed.

“After the 2008 Marriott Hotel bombing, the United Nations had declared Islamabad to be a non-family station,” she said, adding that the decision was reversed recently after prime minister’s image-building efforts.

She remarked that opposition’s demands carried no weight and were far from reality. She said the opposition should not do anything that puts the national security or Pakistan’s national standing in the world at stake.

About incarcerated former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s health, the interior minister said this was the PM’s instruction that nobody would comment on anybody’s health. “This party is not going to do politics on health problems,” she said. About the question whether Sharif would be allowed to go abroad for treatment when his name is on interior ministry’s no fly list, he said he had checked the record and former PM’s name had not been placed on the Exit Control List (ECL).