Islamabad: Amid Pakistan Army's mediation efforts, protesters have stepped up pressure on the embattled government with cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri setting yet another deadline of 24 hours for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to quit.
In a late night development, Qadri's camp was visited by a delegation of Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) led by Vice Chairman Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who convinced the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) chief to delay his next move.
Following the meeting, the first direct contact between the two groups since they together started the march on August 14, Qadri set a 24-hour deadline for the Premier to step down.
Qadri has set a number of deadlines since camping outside the Parliament about two weeks ago.
After their meeting, Qureshi also addressed the PAT crowd and reiterated his party's request to postpone further action, which the protesters did not agree to. At this, Qadri came out of his container and asked his followers to give their assent to the PTI proposal.
He said PAT and PTI had a number of views in common and shared the same struggle, cautioning supporters that the government intended to create a split between the two.
Meanwhile, in his late night address, Khan announced that his party would expand their sit-in to rallies in Lahore, Karachi, Faisalabad and Multan. Qadri asked his supporters to join Khan's protests.
Speaking to his supporters from atop his container outside the Parliament, Khan said he would announce his next step on Sunday.
Khan reiterated that the proposed judicial commission to investigate electoral rigging in the 2013 polls would be unable to probe the matter fully if Sharif remained the Prime Minister.
The developments came after direct talks between the government and protesters failed to break the deadlock yesterday.
The army has been active behind the scenes to broker a deal after Qadri and Khan met army chief General Raheel Sharif on Thursday night, sources said.
The Sharif-led government has announced to accept all electoral reform-related demands but has rejected the demand asking for the Prime Minister's resignation.
Hours after Gen Sharif's mediation, the protesters and the government were trading charges yesterday on who was responsible for army's mediation.
Prime Minister Sharif told the National Assembly yesterday 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.
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.
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.