Pakistan army urges talks as protesters await political showdown
Pakistani supporters of Canada-based preacher Tahir-ul-Qadri dance in Islamabad on August 20, 2014 - by Aamir Qureshi
Men, women and children of all ages staged a sit-in outside the parliament building after defying a government ban on entering Islamabad's "red zone", which houses key buildings including the official residences of the prime minister and the president and foreign embassies.
Imran Khan, the former cricket star and now chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), and preacher Tahir-ul-Qadri have led days of protests demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
They say last year's general election was rigged, and have piled pressure on the government, starting with two-day "long marches" from the eastern city of Lahore to Islamabad, where they have held five days of rallies.
The government had banned them from the red zone. But Khan and Qadri defied the call, and soon after midnight on Wednesday thousands of their supporters entered the high-security area, using cranes to remove shipping containers put in place to seal off the area.
Tens of thousands of security personnel have been deployed to maintain order. On Tuesday, the government doubled the contingent of soldiers guarding sensitive buildings in the red zone to 700.
As Khan and Qadri's followers entered the zone, army spokesman General Asim Bajwa called for restraint and a negotiated settlement.
"Situation requires patience, wisdom and sagacity from all stakeholders to resolve prevailing impasse through meaningful dialogue in larger national and public interest," he said through a recognised Twitter account.
The unexpected late-night intervention from the military, which is hugely influential in Pakistan, came after Khan issued an ultimatum demanding Sharif resign by Wednesday evening.
"Nawaz Sharif, I will wait for your resignation until tomorrow evening and after that, we will enter inside the prime minister's house," Khan said, calling on his supporters to gather at 4:00 pm (11:00 GMT) Wednesday.
Qadri, however, distanced himself from Khan's call, saying his supporters would maintain a peaceful sit-in until Sharif resigned.
"We will stay here until the sun of revolution rises and a national government is formed," Qadri said after reaching the parliament building early Wednesday.
"Do not enter inside the president and prime minister's houses or the prime minister's secretariat."
- 'Human lives are precious' -
Despite fears of violence, there were no major clashes as the protesters entered the red zone Wednesday, with security forces standing off and the government pledging restraint.
Both Khan and Qadri have ordered their followers, who numbered an estimated 35,000 on Tuesday night, to avoid violence during the sit-ins.
After the leader's speeches overnight, many of the protesters went to sleep on the road and lawns in front of the parliament, hampering morning traffic in the area.
Local media reports said lawmakers, judges and staff were unable to reach the parliament or the court due to the sit-in.
The United States, which is closely monitoring the protests, echoed the call for demonstrators to avoid violence, urging all parties to "resolve their differences through peaceful dialogue".
Nuclear-armed Pakistan has experienced three military coups, and the protests triggered speculation about possible intervention by the armed forces.
Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) party has accused the protesters of trying to derail the nation's perennially fragile democratic system, as the government struggles with Taliban militancy and a flagging economy.
Opposition parties have shunned Khan's call to unseat the government, while newspapers and business leaders have also criticised Khan's tactics, which include a call for "civil disobedience".
Britain, one of Pakistan's leading partners and a major aid donor, urged the two sides to find a democratic solution to the crisis.
The European Union also voiced its support for democracy in Pakistan -- and linked it to a highly prized trade deal.
The general election of May 2013 which swept Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) party to power -- and brought PTI its best-ever result -- was rated as free and credible by international observers, but both Khan and Qadri insist it was fixed.
Last week, Sharif tried to head off the protests by setting up a judicial commission to investigate rigging allegations, but Khan dismissed the proposal immediately.
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