An Imran Khan supporter cheers while listening to him speak
during what has been dubbed a 'freedom march' in Islamabad.
Pakistan's army has stepped into a political struggle
between the country's embattled prime minister and the
opposition, signalling a possible end to a crisis that has
destabilised the coup-prone nation.
Pakistan has been gripped by mass rallies for more than two
weeks, with protesters led by cricketer-turned-politician
Imran Khan and firebrand cleric Tahir ul-Qadri camped outside
parliament demanding Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif resign.
Attempts to resolve the crisis through talks have failed,
creating a deadlock and raising the spectre of violence as
thousands of increasingly impatient activists, some armed
with sticks, massed in the heart of Islamabad despite intense
Addressing the roaring crowd late at night, Qadri said the
army had offered to mediate in the stand-off, a proposal he
"The army chief has asked us to give him 24 hours to solve
the crisis," he told thousands of flag-waving supporters.
Khan, speaking shortly after him, echoed his remarks.
"The army will compile and put together a package of our
demands and make sure they are implemented," Qadri added.
The army's press wing tweeted that army chief General Raheel
Sharif would meet both opposition leaders late on Thursday.
No other official comment was immediately available.
Some officials in Sharif's administration have accused the
army itself of orchestrating the protests as a way to weaken
the prime minister, and many believe that the fate of the
anti-government movement ultimately lies in the military's
Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation of 180 million, has been
ruled by the military for half of its entire history and has
repeatedly swung between democracy and military. Sharif
himself was toppled in a coup in 1999 during his previous
This time few observers expect the army to try to grab power
again, although the prime minister seems sure to emerge
significantly weakened from the crisis, with the military
likely to further sideline him on security and foreign policy
A military source told Reuters late on Thursday that the
prime minister had asked General Sharif to "play his role" in
resolving the conflict.
"All stakeholders have been requested to negotiating table to
resolve the issue ... but it's just the beginning," the
At least 10,000 people have crowded Islamabad's so-called Red
Zone, where parliament, the prime minister's residence and
embassies are located since Aug. 15. With many sleeping
rough, the site is now littered with rubbish and reeks of
Tensions came to a head earlier on Thursday, with Qadri
declaring it "Revolution Day" and security forces sealing off
the protest site in case the crowd tried to storm nearby
government buildings, which had been evacuated.
Both Qadri and Khan used fiery language throughout the day
refusing to back down.
The army's mediation could provide a face-saving solution to
both of them in a country where the military is still
respected widely and seen as an antidote to a civilian
government many resent for corruption and red tape.
When Qadri told the protesters that the army was getting
involved, the crowded chanted and waved flags in approval.
Sharif, who met the country's powerful army chief earlier in
the day, flew to the city of Lahore - his political powerbase
- for a funeral but was expected back late Thursday night.
The demonstrations come at a difficult time for Pakistan,
already plagued by an Islamist insurgency, sectarian tension
and recurrent power shortages. Many Pakistanis are deeply
unhappy with the government's performance since it came to
power after winning an election in May last year.