RAWALPINDI, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistan's deposed prime minister Nawaz Sharif kicked off two days of rallies on Wednesday aimed at demonstrating his political strength by making stops from the capital, Islamabad, to his hometown of Lahore, ignoring security threats and drawing thousands of supporters.
Sharif planned to spend at least two nights along the Grand Trunk Road, the main road from Islamabad to Lahore, in his first public appearances since July 28, when the country's Supreme Court disqualified him from office for concealing assets.
Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, who replaced Sharif a few days later, hugged the three-time premier as he boarded a vehicle along with his supporters. Abbasi is a lawmaker from Sharif's ruling Pakistan Muslim League party.
Sharif's supporters showered rose petals on his vehicle and waved national and party flags, chanting: "My Lion, your lion, Nawaz Sharif, Nawaz Sharif" — the lion was Sharif's election symbol when he won the 2013 vote.
Despite the heat and humidity, hundreds of people walked for about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) with Sharif's slow-moving convoy, as volunteers distributed bottles of water. Sharif's party decorated the route with his portraits and national flags.
Hours later, Sharif reached the garrison city of Rawalpindi in a sports vehicle and moved to an elaborately equipped container truck that was fitted with beds, air-conditioning and bathroom.
Because the convoy moved slower than anticipated, Sharif's party leaders and rally organizers changed plans to have Sharif stay overnight in Rawalpindi, according to Asif Kirmani, a close aide to deposed prime minister. He said Sharif will address the crowd and then spend the night at a lodge.
Speaking to enthusiastic supporters at the rally after nightfall, Sharif said "this mammoth crowd in Rawalpindi is in fact the start of a revolution."
"This is the court of the people," he added, speaking from behind bullet-proof glass and saying that it seems the entire city had come out to greet him.
"The disrespect of the people's mandate is not acceptable," he said but added that he doesn't seek a return to government but the "respect of the people's vote."
In Rawalpindi, Rana Sanaullah, a provincial minister for law, said the "sea of people" who joined the rally proves that Sharif "can be expelled from power but not from hearts."
Jamshed Ahmed Khan, a local trader, said the hot weather could not deter them from coming out to support their leader.
Two youths, Hamid Ali and Baz Mohammad, who came from the northwestern town of Sawabi to show their solidarity, said they would even sacrifice their life for Sharif.
Local police officer Mohammad Ramzan estimated that up to 30,000 people were accompanying the convoy when it headed to Rawalpindi.
The rally came a day after Sharif said he was determined to go to his home despite Monday's truck bombing in Lahore, in which two people were killed.
Former information minister, Pervaiz Rashid, and top leaders from Sharif's party were seen in his car as he started the journey.
Sharif insists his removal from office did not mean the end of his future in politics. He plans to file a review petition in an effort to get his disqualification reversed.
Sharif says he wants to start a debate in parliament and the public to discuss why no elected prime minister has completed their full term in Pakistan, which has been ruled by army generals for more than half of its 70-year history.
Sharif has a history of rocky relations with the military, but since his removal he has exercised restraint in commenting on the sensitive issue of civil-military relations.
Sharif's party initially wanted Abbasi to serve as an interim premier for 45 days until Sharif's younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister of Punjab, secures a national assembly seat in a by-election. But now Sharif says his party won't replace Abbasi with his brother.
Under Pakistan's laws, Sharif cannot lead his party because of his disqualification and he is expected to give this position to Shahbaz Sharif this week.
Sharif's rally comes a day after firebrand opposition cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri returned home from abroad despite pending court cases against him in Pakistan. He wants justice for eight of his supporters killed in anti-government rallies in 2014.
Qadri has asked his supporters to wait for his call for a rally along the same Grand Trunk Road that Sharif chose for the path of his rally.
Ahmed reported from Islamabad. Associated Press writers Zarar Khan in Islamabad, Anjum Naveed and Nabil Yousaf contributed this report from Rawalpindi.