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Protesters, Pakistan govt begin talks to end crisis

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Pakistani ministers and opposition politicians met
anti-government protesters on Wednesday in a bid to
end a week-long political crisis that has rattled the
restive nuclear-armed nation.

Thousands of followers of cricketer-turned-politician
Imran Khan and populist cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri are
demonstrating outside the parliament building, trying
to force Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from office.

Khan and Qadri say last year’s general election that
swept Sharif to power by a landslide was rigged, and
they are demanding his resignation.

The showdown has added to the sense of instability
in a country that has had three military coups since
its creation in 1947 and which is struggling with a
homegrown Taliban insurgency, a crippling power
crisis and a sluggish economy.

There had been few signs the protest leaders were
prepared to back down, but on Wednesday evening a
cross-party delegation held an initial meeting with
members of Qadri’s team to try to resolve the
standoff.

Khurram Nawaz Gandapur, a senior leader in Qadri’s
Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) movement, said they
wanted “meaningful talks”.

Minister for states and frontier regions Abdul Qadir
Baloch, part of the government team, said he was
hopeful for a “positive result from the negotiations”.

Earlier Qadri repeated his demand for Sharif to quit
and install a “national government”, and ordered his
followers to stop lawmakers leaving a national
assembly sitting called to debate the crisis.

His activists occupied the main entrances to
parliament but MPs left the building by a back
entrance without incident.

The Supreme Court, which has played an influential
role in Pakistani politics in recent years, ordered
Khan and Qadri to appear on Thursday to explain
their protests, a court official said.

The ruling came after petitions urging the court to
restrain Khan and Qadri from “making illegal and
unconstitutional demands”, Kamran Murtaza, a
senior lawyer, told AFP.

There had been fears the protesters’ advance on
parliament in the early hours of Wednesday could
trigger clashes, but riot police and other security
forces looked on without intervening.

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