Islamabad: Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the powerful Army Chief on Tuesday agreed on the need to "expeditiously" resolve the political deadlock amid fears of instability in the coup-prone country, as the embattled government stepped up efforts to reach out to protesters.
The meeting between Sharif and Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Gen Raheel Sharif came in the wake of protests in the heart of the capital by thousands of supporters of Imran Khan and cleric Tahir-ul- Qadri, demanding the Prime Minister's resignation.
"Overall security environment including the prevailing situation was discussed in the meeting. There was a consensus on the need to resolve the ongoing issue expeditiously in the best national interest," a statement issued by the Prime Minister's Office said.
The government did not give further details about the meeting but the army has already asked the two sides to end the crisis through negotiations.
Qadri, who gave a 48-hour ultimatum to Sharif yesterday to step down, warned today that either the government steps down in 23 hours, or blood would be spilled.
"The Sharif brothers should face capital punishment for their crimes," Qadri said while addressing his supporters.
Political stalemate has continued for the last 13 days with Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and Qadri's Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) refusing to budge from their demand of the Prime Minister's resignation over allegations of rigging in last year's general election and killing of 14 PAT supporters in Lahore on June 17.
"The judicial tribunal has proven that Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and the Punjab government are responsible for the June 17 clashes," Qadri said.
Back channel consultations were on to reach an amicable settlement.
"There has been a deadlock with the PTI and Qadri's PAT over one point -- Prime Minister Sharif's resignation. The government is ready to accept all other demands related to rigging and electoral reforms but both the protesting parties are sticking to their one major demand of the premier's resignation," Punjab Governor Chaudhry Sarwar told a news agency.
"I am tasked by the government to make a final attempt to convince Mr Khan to drop his demand of Prime Minister's resignation for the sake of democracy and the people of this country," the governor said, adding that Sharif was ready to meet Khan provided the latter was willing to do so.
"They even want the Prime Minister's resignation for a month. How could a new premier be installed for a month as a stop-gap arrangement," he argued.
The protesters have not moved away from the Constitution Avenue despite Supreme Court's orders yesterday to clear the road by today to allow judges to reach court.
The protesters, however, cleared one side of the avenue to let the judges reach court without any hindrance.
Former premier and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leader Yousuf Raza Gilani said, "Martial law cannot be ruled out in the present circumstances. The government should act now and avert crisis otherwise there is no guarantee that the democracy will continue here. I advise the PML-N government to do whatever it can to save democracy."
As the clock ticked on Qadri's 48-hour ultimatum to the Prime Minister, back channel efforts to broker a settlement were stepped up by the government.
Punjab Governor Sarwar, who is known to be close to Sharif, is in Karachi to meet Sindh Governor Ishratul Ibad. Both Sarwar and Ibad are considered to be close to Qadri and are trying to broker a deal between the cleric and government.
"I am sure Mr Khan must be knowing the consequences of prolonged protest sit-in. We have got democracy after a long struggle and everyone should value it," Sarwar said.
PPP Secretary-General Sardar Latif Khosa said the political situation is very serious.
"Rather it is posing a serious threat to democracy. As Imran Khan is not willing to budge from his stance, the government should give a big sacrifice to save the system. Sensing the gravity of the situation, I think Nawaz Sharif should resign for democracy's sake," Khosa told a news agency.
Khosa said, though the PPP would resist any unconstitutional move to derail the democratic set up but it wanted the government to show magnanimity and give in to the protesting parties' demand of the Premier's resignation.
"The government has entered the blind alley and Sharif's resignation could lead the government out of it," Khosa said.
PTI Secretary General Jehangir Tareen said: "The government does not have much time to act. Nawaz Sharif will have to resign to save the system."
Tareen said Sharif wanted to be a "political martyr" by creating circumstances that force the Army to intervene.
"The PTI will not budge from its stance of Nawaz's resignation come what may. Nawaz will have to go and he must read the writing on the wall," he said.
Firebrand anti-government leader Shiekh Rashid said: "Next 48 hours are very important. If Nawaz does not resign then someone else will take it from him."
Meanwhile, Punjab Chief Minister and brother of the Prime Minister, Shahbaz Sharif, has left for China.
"Shahbaz will ask China to play its role in saving the PML-N government," a PML-N leader said.
Thousands of Khan and Qadri supporters are camped out outside Parliament in the "Red Zone" since last week.
The Army had earlier asked all stakeholders in the crisis to hold "meaningful" talks to end the crisis.
The Army, which has so far been passive in the confrontation between the government and protesters, has a history of capturing power from democratically elected governments.
Meanwhile, PML-N leader Talal Chaudhry said: "As Mr Khan and Dr Qadri are not willing to show flexibility on their resignation demand, the government is forced to believe that their only agenda is to remove Nawaz Sharif."
He said as both Khan and Qadri had moved to Islamabad in a coordinated effort and were showing no flexibility on their demands, it seems that they are acting on a "script" and the ultimate goal is to get Sharif out.
PTI has also started holding sit-ins in Lahore and Karachi to put pressure on the government to accept its demands.