Islamabad: 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 Tahirul 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 instability in a country that has had three military coups 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".
But Khan struck a tougher note, saying he would negotiate only if Sharif resigned.
"We are ready for talks but our first condition is Nawaz Sharif's resignation," he told private TV Channel JAAG.
"There is no use in talks if he does not resign."
The two protest movements are not formally allied and have different goals, beyond toppling the government. But their combined pressure — and numbers — have given extra heft to the protests.
If PAT were to reach a settlement with the government and withdraw, PTI's position would be significantly weakened.
Earlier Qadri repeated his demand for Sharif to quit and install a "national government", though as the delegation arrived for talks at his protest site outside parliament he asked followers to stop shouting anti-government slogans.
The protests have so far been peaceful but the crisis has raised fears that Pakistan's fragile democracy could be under threat of another military intervention.
Rumours have abounded that elements within the influential military have been behind Khan and Qadri's moves, though the cleric and the interior minister have adamantly denied this.
On Tuesday Khan had threatened to break into Sharif's official residence unless he resigned, though Qadri distanced himself from the call, saying his supporters would maintain a peaceful sit-in until the premier stepped down.
Early on Wednesday the army's chief spokesman called for dialogue.
"Situation requires patience, wisdom and sagacity from all stakeholders to resolve prevailing impasse through meaningful dialogue in larger national and public interest," General Asim Bajwa said through a recognised Twitter account.
Sharif has a history of testy relations with the military — his second term as prime minister ended abruptly in 1999 when then-army chief Pervez Musharraf seized power in a coup.
His government is thought to have angered the military further by pursuing criminal cases against Musharraf dating back to his 1999-2008 rule, including treason charges.
Military analyst Ayesha Siddiqui warned that the situation was very precarious.
"From the military perspective, they have tried and tested Nawaz Sharif a third time and they feel disappointed. Why would they let him be?" she told AFP.
But Hamid Gul, the former head of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, said that despite the military's differences with Sharif, he thought they were unwilling to get involved.
"They (Khan and Qadri) are trying to drag the army into it, to pull the army, but the army is very reluctant," Gul told AFP, adding that the crisis would inevitably weaken Sharif.
"If Nawaz wants to stay in power he has no choice" but to listen to the army, Gul said.
The United States, Britain and the European Union have all voiced support for Pakistani democracy and urged the feuding sides to negotiate a way out of the impasse.
Last year's election, rated free and credible by international observers, was an important landmark for Pakistani democracy -- the first time one democratically elected government had completed its term and handed over power to another.