Islamabad: Pakistan on Tuesday sent troops to boost security in Islamabad's government district after opposition politician Imran Khan pledged to lead protesters on parliament in a high-stakes bid to depose the prime minister.
Khan, the former cricket star who leads the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party, says last year's general election was rigged and has demanded Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif resign.
Thousands of Khan's followers have rallied in Islamabad over the past five days to demand Sharif quit, piling pressure on the government little more than a year since its landslide victory.
Populist cleric Tahirul Qadri — leading his own protest in the capital at the same time, also seeking to topple the government —on Tuesday said his rally would also move to parliament.
The government has used shipping containers to seal off Islamabad's "red zone", which houses key buildings including parliament, the prime minister's house and numerous Western embassies.
Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said extra troops were being deployed to stop marchers entering the red zone.
"It has been decided to hand over the security of the red zone to military," the minister told reporters.
The decision was taken at a meeting chaired by Sharif and attended by army chief General Raheel Sharif, Khan said — suggesting the government has the support of the powerful military in the crisis.
Nuclear-armed Pakistan has experienced three military coups and the protests triggered speculation about possible intervention by the armed forces.
Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) party has accused Khan of trying to derail the nation's perennially fragile democratic system as the government struggles with Taliban militancy and a flagging economy.
Khan and Qadri's core supporters appears to be lacking and other opposition parties have shunned Khan's call to unseat the government.
Newspapers and business leaders have also criticised Khan's tactics, which on Sunday included a call for "civil disobedience".
With Khan looking isolated, on Monday PTI made a dramatic double roll of the dice to try to re-energise its campaign.
First the party announced it would resign all 34 of its seats in the 342-member parliament and three out of four provincial assemblies.
Then Khan pledged to lead the protesters in a march on the red zone, setting the stage for possible clashes.
At the protest site PTI activists struck a defiant tone.
"We will march and stage the next sit-in in front of the parliament house," said Bilal Arshad, 20.
"We are not ready to listen to anyone except our chairman. We just want the resignation of the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is a symbol of corruption and bad governance."
Fellow protester Naeem Kazmi said the crowd was ready to "reply in a fitting way" if violence erupted.
Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan renewed the government's offer of talks with Khan and Qadri to resolve the protests, and accused the PTI chief of reneging on a promise not to try to enter the red zone.
"I again invite them to negotiations. No problem could be solved through violence, rather violence complicates it," he said.
Last week Sharif tried to head off the protests by setting up a judicial commission to investigate rigging allegations, but Khan dismissed the proposal immediately.
The government has also set up a parliamentary committee to look at electoral reform.
At a joint press conference of all opposition parties except PTI, Khurshid Shah, a senior figure in the
Pakistan People's Party (PPP) urged Khan to come to the negotiating table.
The general election of May 2013 which swept Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) party to power — and brought PTI its best-ever result — was rated as free and credible by international observers but both Khan and Qadri insist it was fixed.