Sunday, Oct 26, 2014

Pakistan protests ease as rival leaders seek negotiated settlement

Supporters of Pakistan's fiery cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri chant slogans during a protest near Prime Minister's home in Islamabad on Tuesday. (Source: AP) Supporters of Pakistan's fiery cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri chant slogans during a protest near Prime Minister's home in Islamabad on Tuesday. (Source: AP)
Reuters | Islamabad | Posted: September 3, 2014 1:19 pm | Updated: September 3, 2014 1:24 pm

Rival Pakistani politicians on Wednesday explored the possibility of a negotiated solution to weeks of protests aimed at the removal of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that eased after turning violent at the weekend.

Thousands had tried to storm Sharif’s house in protests led by former cricket star Imran Khan and firebrand cleric Tahir ul-Qadri, destabilising the coup-prone nation.

upporters of Pakistan's cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan wave party flags as they chant slogans during a protest near Prime Minister's home in Islamabad. (Source: AP) Supporters of Imran Khan wave party flags as they chant slogans during a protest near Prime Minister’s home in Islamabad. (Source: AP)

But by Wednesday, only a few hundred people were camped out outside parliament in the high-security Red Zone area in the centre of the capital Islamabad, with the army protecting key government installations.

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Sharif has refused to step down, while protest leaders have rejected his calls to come to the negotiating table, creating a dangerous deadlock and prompting fears the military might seize power.

But in the latest twist, Khan and Qadri agreed to talk to a committee of opposition politicians seeking to mediate between the government and the protesters and help find a political solution.

Imran Khan addresses his supporters in Islamabad. (Source: AP) Imran Khan addresses his supporters in Islamabad. (Source: AP)

“The entire nation is disturbed by the ongoing crisis,” Siraj-ul-Haq, a conservative Islamist politician leading the mediation effort, said adding that (Khan’s party) has accepted our request (to hold talks) with an open heart and we are thankful to them.

The crisis has taken many turns since protests broke out in mid-August, subsiding at times and erupting in violence again, with most commentators saying it was too early to say whether a negotiated solution was in sight.

Police use tear gas to disperse protesters in Islamabad, Pakistan on Monday. (Source: AP) Police use tear gas to disperse protesters in Islamabad, Pakistan on Monday. (Source: AP)

Violent scenes in the usually quiet capital have alarmed many people in a nation where power has often changed hands though military coups rather than elections, with some officials accusing the military of orchestrating the protests as a way of sidelining or even toppling Sharif – a charge it denies.

Few commentators think the army is bent on seizing power again but even if Sharif survives, he would emerge significantly weakened and likely play second-fiddle to the army on key security and foreign policy issues.

On Tuesday, parliament threw its weight behind Sharif who has convened a week-long joint session of the chamber where he enjoys a solid majority following last year’s landslide election victory.

He chaired another session in parliament on Wednesday when more lawmakers were expected to deliver speeches in his support.

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