ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's powerful army chief called Wednesday for the country's civilian government to negotiate with thousands of protesters surrounding parliament who demand the prime minister step down over alleged fraud in last year's election.
Gen. Rasheel Sharif made the request during a meeting with Shahbaz Sharif, the younger brother of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Pakistani officials said. The premier earlier ended up sneaking into parliament through a back exit after the protesters torn down barricades late Tuesday and entered the so-called "Red Zone" housing key government buildings and diplomatic posts.
The two Pakistani security officials and a government official who confirmed the meeting took place spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to journalists.
The twin protests against Sharif's government by opposition politician Imran Khan and cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri have virtually shut down Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, and raised fears of unrest in this nuclear-armed country with a history of military coups and dictatorships.
However, the protests remained peaceful Wednesday as lawmakers met inside a parliament guarded by soldiers for the first time under a civilian government in Pakistan's history. Men and women danced to drum beats and music as vendors sold carnival-style food. Other demonstrators slept outside at times and took showers at a public park.
Authorities earlier warned the protesters wouldn't be allowed inside the "Red Zone," though police and soldiers stood back as protesters armed with wire cutters and massive construction cranes cleared away barbed wire and shipping containers set up as roadblocks around it.
Sharif's government has been at odds with country's military ever since he decided to put for army chief Pervez Musharraf, who ousted Sharif in a 1999 coup, on trial for treason. The premier's government also sided with a television station recently when it blamed an attempt to kill one of its popular anchors on the head of country's premier intelligence agency, further straining relations.
Analysts suggest the army or the intelligence community may be backing the two rallies to pressure Sharif. The army hasn't commented on the protests, though some of Sharif's aides and ministers have hinted toward its involvement. Many of the celebrities and politicians involved in the protests previously supported the Pakistani army and its use of martial law in past.
Sharif, however, has refused to step down. Lawmakers from several parties condemned the protesters' attempt to besiege parliament.
"We will strive to safeguard democracy. We will strive for the supremacy of the constitution," said Shazia Marri, a lawmaker from the opposition Pakistan People's Party.
Outside of parliament, Qadri and Khan both addressed their rallies and showed signs that they were willing to open talks with the government. The government has appointed teams of politicians to start negotiations with the protest leaders.
Khan warned Tuesday that his supporters would enter the premier's office if Sharif did not step down by Wednesday night, but his party appeared to back down later, urging supporters not to enter government buildings and indicating it would take part in talks to resolve the crisis.
The Pakistani Supreme Court has summoned Khan and Qadri to a court hearing over the sit-ins, according to state-run Pakistan TV.
Khan presented a list of demands Wednesday night, saying that he was willing to negotiate but that his first demand remained Sharif's resignation. He promised his supporters that he will live in a shipping container as long as Sharif remained in power.
Several government ministers dismissed Khan's comments as grandstanding.
"You can spend your whole life in the container but Nawaz Sharif will NOT resign," Sharif's politician daughter, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, wrote on Twitter.