Former cricket star Imran Khan and cleric Tahir ul-Qadri, who
controls a network of Islamic schools and hospitals, have been
leading protests in the capital, Islamabad, since last Friday.
About 2,000 demonstrators gathered on the main road outside
parliament for a second day on Thursday, hours after talks on an end
to the turmoil finally got going.
"Yes, talks are on," said Ahsan Iqbal, a prominent member of
parliament from the ruling party. "We are progressing."
Shahid Mursaleen, a spokesman for Qadri, also said their leaders had
Both Khan and Qadri want Sharif to resign over allegations of
corruption and election rigging. Sharif, who won the last election,
in May last year, by a landslide, has refused.
The protests have raised concern about stability in the country of
180 million people, at a time when the government is battling a
Taliban insurgency and NATO troops are withdrawing from neighboring
The confrontation has also shone a spotlight on the central issue in
Pakistani politics: competition for power between the military and
Some ruling party officials have accused elements within the
military of orchestrating the protests to weaken the civilian
government. The military insists it does not meddle in politics.
Most analysts doubt the military wants to seize power in a coup, and
be forced to take responsibility for the country's dire economy and
'HERE TO STAY'
But there is a widespread perception that the military is benefiting
from the protests in terms of its relations with the government,
because the government has been forced to rely on it for security.
On Tuesday, the military said the two sides should engage in
dialogue and warned that key government institutions were under its
There have been indications that the military was frustrated with
the government, in particular over the treason trial of former
military chief and ex-President Pervez Musharraf, who deposed Sharif
in a 1999 coup.
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There has also been disagreement between the government and the army
on how to handle the Islamist militants attacking the state, and on
relations with old rival India.
The army has traditionally seen internal security and foreign
relations as its domains.
On Tuesday, protesters used a crane and bolt cutters to force their
way past barricades of shipping containers to push into central
Islamabad's government and diplomatic heart.
Khan had threatened to march on the prime minister's house if Sharif
did not resign, but later backed off that vow after the military
issued a statement calling for dialogue.
Mursaleen, Qadri's spokesman, said the protesters' demands included
the resignation of the entire government and the registration of a
murder case against the government over the killing of some of
Qadri's supports in clashes with police.
"We are here to stay until these demands are met," he said.
On Thursday, Sharif was scheduled to address parliament but he did
not. His office declined to comment.
(Additional reporting by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Robert
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