Pakistani cleric says talks with government failed
ISLAMABAD (AP) -- A fiery Pakistani cleric who has been leading a mass rally outside parliament demanding Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's resignation said on Thursday that he has "shut the door" on further talks with the government.
The development was a worrisome sign in the already troubled negotiations between the Pakistani government and the opposition amid a lingering crisis that has raised fears of political instability in this nuclear-armed country of 180 million people with a history of political turmoil and military dictatorships.
The cleric, Tahir-ul-Qadri, and Pakistan's cricket-star-turned-politician Imran Khan have been leading mass rallies for two weeks in Islamabad.
The demonstrations initially locked down Islamabad and disrupted life and business in much of the city. Lately, the rallies have mostly fizzled out but the crowds, which are camped out near the parliament and administration buildings in the heart of the city, still surge, especially in the evenings.
Khan and Qadri are demanding Sharif resign over allegations of vote fraud in last year's elections - something the prime minister has repeatedly said he would not do, though he is prepared to negotiate on some of the other demands by the protesters.
Qadri, a dual Pakistani-Canadian citizen with a wide following, emerged from a lengthy late night round with of meetings with government representatives to tell his followers that the talks had made no progress.
"I announce with regret that out talks with the government have failed," Qadri said early Thursday. "We will now shut the door on any further talks."
Qadri has also demanded that Sharif and the premier's younger brother, who is chief minister in the eastern Punjab province, be arrested over an incident in June in the eastern city of Lahore when 14 people were killed during clashes between Qadri's supporters and police.
Under Pakistani law, the prime minister enjoys immunity and cannot be arrested as long as he is in office.
In a compromise gesture, Railways Minister Saad Rafiq who is leading the talks with the opposition said the government agreed to register the Lahore case with the local authorities - meaning the incident would have to be investigated and could possibly go to trial.
"This case is being registered against all those people who have been named in the complaint" by Qadri, Rafiq said.
However, Rafiq said the government would never accept any unconstitutional demands, such as the disbanding of the parliament or Sharif's resignation.
"Tahir-ul-Qadri wants the dissolution of assemblies and resignation of the prime minister," he said. "We will never accept this demand."
Sharif, whose election last May marked the first democratic transfer of power since Pakistan was carved out of India in 1947, cancelled a planned official visit to Turkey on Thursday to deal with the situation.
Sharif was forced once before from office during a previous stint as premier, when the then-army chief Pervez Musharraf seized power in a coup in 1999.