The protest against the Nawaz Sharif regime took a new turn today with cleric Tahirul Qadri opening a dialogue with government and Imran Khan sticking to his 'no-talks' position unless the Prime Minister resigns as the Supreme Court summoned both the leaders tomorrow for hearing a petition against the siege of Parliament.
The apparent difference in the approach of the two leaders came after the powerful army counselled a peaceful resolution of the week-long crisis, even as Khan said he would abide by the verdict of the Supreme Court on the protest.
The cricketer-turned-politician and Pakistan Tehreek-i- Insaf (PTI) chief, who had threatened to storm Sharif's residence at 8 pm tonight, instead addressed his supporters conscious of the court hearing tomorrow which observers feel may provide him with a face-saver.
"We have decided to negotiate with you Nawaz Sharif, but listen carefully — the negotiation will start with the resignation of Prime Minister Sharif. How can a probe under Nawaz Sharif be transparent?" Khan said.
Khan said his party has prepared a committee for negotiating with the government, but it will not move ahead unless the prime minister steps down.
"You resign, make an independent committee which investigates (rigging) and then we can proceed," he said.
The PTI chief presented his six-point demands formula for talks. The demands included Sharif's resignation, re- elections, reforms of electoral laws, neutral caretaker government, new election commission and punishments to those responsible for rigging last year's polls.
Cancelling his deadline which expired in the evening to storm the Prime Minister's House, Khan said, "Sharif has a heart problem and I don't want to aggravate that by marching on his residence."
Analysts said Khan in his address showed signs of softening his stand.
This came after the army chief had asked all stakeholders to hold "meaningful" talks to end the crisis, a source close to the ruling PML-N said.
"It seems that Khan has got the message. The start of talks may be beginning of the end of the crisis," a PML-N leader told PTI.
In the first sign of thaw between the government and the protesters, Sharif today sent a four-member team to negotiate a deal with Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) leader Qadri.
Qadri declined to give any guarantee about the success of the dialogue but maintained that he had never opposed talks.
The team sent to Qadri included Minister for Frontier Region Qadri Baloch and Minister for Railway Saad Rafique, who was later replaced by Minister for Development Ahsan Iqbal as Qadri had reservations over Rafique's inclusion. Opposition leaders Ijazul Haq and Haidar Abbas Rizvi were also part of the team.
The move came after the powerful army called for calm following the breach by protesters of the high-security Red Zone that houses important government buildings including the Parliament House, Prime Minister House, President House, the Supreme Court besides the embassies.
"Situation requires patience, wisdom and sagacity from all stakeholders to resolve prevailing impasse through meaningful dialogue in larger national and public interest," military spokesman Maj Gen Asim Saleem Bajwa tweeted.
Khan was quoted by Dawn News as saying that Sharif is "Pakistan's Hosni Mubarak" and alleged that he had killed innocent people in Lahore's Model Town, in an apparent reference to the killing of 14 Qadri supporters in June.
Khan also slammed PML-N workers for attacking Qureshi's home in Multan. He called for those involved in rigging last year's polls to be brought to the book.
"Nawaz Sharif is hiding behind the Army due to fear of the public," the PTI chief said.
Khan taunted Sharif and asked him to resign if he had courage to face the people in next elections.
"Just like Tahrir Square [in Cairo], this [D-chowk] is 'Azadi' square," Khan said.
Khan had earlier said he would also abide by the Supreme Court's verdict on the issue of alleged rigging in last year's general elections.
Earlier, PTI leader Shah Mehmood Qureshi said, "We have decided not to immediately enter negotiations with the government".
"The party decided that the foremost fundamental condition is that the Prime Minister step down, and that no dialogue can be initiated unless the resignation takes place," he said.
Talks with Qadri began, after Prime Minister Sharif's brother Shahbaz once again met army chief Gen Raheel Sharif in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, Geo TV reported.
Under pressure from the call by protesters to storm his residence, Prime Minister Sharif today decided to meet Khan in an effort to end the anti-government protests. However, when the meeting would take place was not specified.
As the drama in the capital unfolded, the session of Pakistan's lower house of parliament, attended by Sharif, was held.
The military has said the buildings in the red Zone are symbols of state and being protected by army, so the sanctity of these national symbols must be respected.
Khan and Qadri have both alleged rigging in the polls last year and called for a re-election. In the elections, Sharif's PML-N had won 190 out of 342 seats. Khan's PTI got 34 seats, the third largest bloc in the legislature.
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. In its 67-year history, Pakistan has witnessed three coups, including one against Sharif in 1999 by the then army chief General Parvez Musharraf.