Islamabad: Pakistan's powerful Army on Friday stepped into the political crisis by talking to two protesting organisations but delivered a snub to the beleaguered government which had claimed that it had not sought military's mediation.
Army Chief General Raheel Sharif talked to Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan and cleric Tahir-ul- Qadri of the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) in the presence of Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar.
It was agreed that army negotiators will have backdoor interactions with both sides and prepare the ground for an agreement between the two sides, sources said.
Hours after Gen Sharif's mediation, the protesters and the government were trading charges on who was responsible for army's mediation.
Prime Minister Sharif told the National Assembly today that "neither had I asked army nor the armed forces sought a role in the present political crisis."
Sharif sought to scotch media reports that it was he who had "requested" the army to come to his rescue, saying that he approved the military chief's meeting with the two opposition leaders after they had requested it. Both Qadri and Khan contested Sharif's statement.
Contradicting Sharif's statement, military spokesman Major General Asim Bajwa tweeted, "COAS (Chief of Army Staff) was asked by the Govt to play facilitative role for resolution of current impasse, in yesterday's meeting, at #PM House."
In a bid to save face, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar claimed that it was the Prime Minister who had approved army's role.
"The statement released by the ISPR first came to me," Nisar said, adding that he showed the statement to the Prime Minister who also approved it.
"ISPR's statement is echoing the government's view," he said.
Explaining the government's decision of engaging the army, he said "We asked who the protesting parties trusted to which they said they trusted the army...On this the government gave the army the responsibility to facilitate the process within the constitutional and legal ambit."
Amid the contradictory statements, the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and protesting parties -- Khan-led PTI and Qadri's PAT -- returned to the negotiating table and held talks here.
However, the talks did not make any headway in resolving the crisis, with PTI leader Shah Mehmood Qureshi saying, "We (PTI) have come with a positive approach, however the government has not said anything new."
Qureshi lamented that the deadlock on negotiations is prevailing and said talks will not move forward due to the "trust deficit".
Responding to Sharif's statement on protest leaders requesting the army to intervene, an angry PAT chief Qadri shot back, "I say this categorically that the Prime Minister asked the army to intervene. I am saying, on the record, that we did not make any request asking the army to intervene."
"I had not even spoken to the army chief before our meeting yesterday," Qadri said, adding that Sharif made the statement after he saw his government was losing strength. The fiery cleric claimed that Sharif was lying.
Khan also slammed the premier for saying Qadri and he asked for the army to intervene. "I want to tell you what I told the army chief. I told Gen Raheel that I do not trust Nawaz Sharif at all. I told Gen Raheel every reason as to why I will not leave without their resignations," Khan said, adding that PTI did not ask the army to mediate.
"I am not going to backtrack on the resignation of the prime minister on any account," he said.
Earlier, speaking in the National Assembly, Nisar expressed disappointment that the protesting groups were unwilling to accept any other institution's offered solutions.
"These two groups did not trust the judiciary; they did not trust the opposition parties in this assembly; they do not trust lawyers, tribunals ? if they do not trust anyone (but the army) what option did the government have?" he said.
"Let me make clear that this step (to involve army) was taken on a request by the protesting parties...The government allowed this facilitation, it should not be interpreted beyond that," he added.
Both PTI and PAT have remained unflinching in their demands, especially on Sharif's resignation, with Khan saying he will not give in to the government's efforts to "buy him out".
"If you didn't rig the elections, you have nothing to worry about. I have nothing to lose, I was ready for my three constituencies to be looked into. If anyone comes forward with allegations of rigging in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (K-P), I am not afraid of being investigated," the PTI chief said.
"I have Nawaz by his collar, and I refuse to let go," he said.
Khan wants the PML-N government's ouster over alleged rigging in last year's polls which his party lost, while Qadri wants to bring a "revolution" in the country.
Sources said the deal brokered by army will address Khan's concerns about rigging and Qadri's basic demand of inclusion of clauses of anti-terror laws in the case already registered against Prime Minister Sharif, his brother and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and others in Lahore.
Analysts said Sharif is expected to survive in the political battle but he will become weak and unable to challenge the army's grip on foreign and security policy of the country.
The blame game between the two sides may affect the reconciliatory efforts of the army as both government and the protest leaders would further stiffen their stances, making bargaining hard, analysts said.
Earlier, the opposition flayed the government for taking army's help with opposition leader Khursheed Shah saying they would not allow anyone to go against the Constitution.
The developments came a day after Sharif agreed to face a case of murder of 14 supporters of Qadri who rejected it saying terror charges should also be slapped on the Premier.
Police in Lahore finally registered the murder case against Prime Minister Sharif, his brother and Punjab province Chief Minister Shahbaz, key Cabinet ministers and senior officials for their alleged role in the killing of Qadri's supporters in the Model Town area, meeting a major demand of the fiery cleric.
The army had earlier asked all stakeholders in the crisis to hold "meaningful" talks to end the crisis.
In its 67-year history, Pakistan has witnessed three coups, including one against Sharif in 1999 by the then army chief General Parvez Musharraf.
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.