ISLAMABAD (AFP) - Pakistan's Interior Minister said on Friday that the intransigence of anti-government protest movements had left no alternative but mediation by the army to end a two-week political crisis that has shaken the nuclear-armed nation.
The country's powerful army chief, General Raheel Sharif, was named mediator on Thursday in the standoff between the government and protesters led by populist cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri and cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan.
The move has raised fears of increased military dominance over the civilian government in a country ruled for more than half its life by the army.
Thousands of demonstrators led by Mr Khan and Mr Qadri are camped outside the Parliament building in Islamabad demanding the prime minister step down. More than a week of government efforts to negotiate an end to the stand-off made little headway, with Mr Khan adamant that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif must resign.
Late on Thursday, Mr Qadri and Mr Khan announced that Gen Sharif would mediate and later the army chief met them both, according to a military spokesman.
Interior Minister Chaudhry Ali Nisar Khan told Parliament the protesters' unwillingness to trust anyone had left no alternative but army mediation.
"Again and again they said they only trust the army and will only have talks through the army," he said.
"When a group or two parties has no faith in the judiciary, the opposition, lawyers or civil society and has no confidence in anybody, what option remains for the government?"
A furious row blew up almost immediately, over the chain of events leading up the army stepping in.
The Interior Minister and PM told Parliament the request for military help had come from the camps of Mr Khan and Mr Qadri.
Mr Qadri, who is usually based in Canada, hotly denied this and demanded Mr Sharif resign.
"This is a lie, a lie, a lie. This request has been made by the prime minister and the government and I reject his claim," he told supporters.
Mr Khan alleges the 2013 General Election that swept Mr Sharif to power in a landslide was rigged, though international observers said the vote was largely free and fair.
Mr Qadri has demanded wholesale changes to Pakistan's political system and called for an interim "unity government" while they are implemented.
The leaders have drawn thousands to the streets in Islamabad but their call has not mobilised mass support in a country of 180 million people.
But the stand-off has weakened Mr Sharif and led a number of observers to say the military would use the crisis to reclaim a hold over its traditional spheres of influence in Pakistani politics - defence and foreign policy.
The army is widely viewed as hostile toward Mr Sharif's efforts to normalise ties with India - the perceived threat from Pakistan's giant neighbour is a big part of the justification for the military's large budget and prominent role.
Mr Sharif is also thought to have angered the military by pursuing treason charges against former chief General Pervez Musharraf.
There is speculation that the military will use the current crisis to get Mr Sharif to let Mr Musharraf - who deposed him in a coup in 1999 - leave the country.
A military-negotiated end to the crisis would also lend credence to the view, held by many analysts, that the army and its intelligence agencies have been providing material aid to the opposition groups. Analyst Imtiaz Gul said that Mr Sharif was likely to survive the crisis, but would need to make major concessions to the army in exchange for its support.