ISLAMABAD (AFP) - Pakistan's powerful military called for talks to resolve a week-long political drama, as tens of thousands of protesters marched on parliament overnight on Wednesday in a bid to depose the prime minister.
Imran Khan, the former cricket star who leads the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party, and preacher Tahir-ul-Qadri said last year's general election was rigged and have led protests to demand that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif resign.
Their five-day rallies in Islamabad, and the two-day "long marches" from the eastern city of Lahore that preceded them, have piled pressure on the government little more than a year since its landslide victory.
The government had banned them from the capital's "red zone", which houses key buildings including parliament, the prime minister's house and numerous Western embassies.
But Khan and Qadri defied the call and soon after midnight on Wednesday, thousands of their supporters entered the high-security red zone, using cranes to remove shipping containers put in place to seal off the area. Tens of thousands of security personnel have been deployed to maintain order.
On Tuesday evening, the government doubled the contingent of soldiers guarding sensitive buildings in the red zone to 700.
As Khan and Qadri's followers entered the red zone, army spokesman General Asim Bajwa called for restraint and a negotiated settlement. "Situation requires patience, wisdom and sagacity from all stakeholders to resolve prevailing impasse through meaningful dialogue in larger national and public interest," he said through a recognised Twitter account.
The unexpected late-night intervention from the military, which is hugely influential in Pakistan, came after Khan issued an ultimatum demanding Sharif resign by Wednesday evening.
"Nawaz Sharif, I will wait for your resignation until tomorrow evening and after that, we will enter inside the prime minister's house," Khan said.
Despite fears of violence, there were no major clashes as the protesters entered the red zone, and the government pledged restraint.
"We will avoid use of force, human lives are much more precious for us, they have brought innocent children and women," said information minister Pervez Rashid.
Both Khan and Qadri have ordered their followers, who number an estimated 35,000, to avoid violence as they stage sit-in protests outside parliament. However, Qadri distanced himself from Khan's call to occupy the prime minister's house, saying his supporters would maintain a peaceful sit-in until Sharif resigned.
"We will stay here until the sun of revolution rises and a national government is formed," Qadri said after reaching the parliament building early Wednesday. "Do not enter inside the president and prime minister's houses or the prime minister's secretariat," he added.
The United States, monitoring rallies closely, echoed the call for protesters to avoid violence, urging all parties to "resolve their differences through peaceful dialogue".
"We urge all sides to refrain from violence, exercise restraint and respect the rule of law," deputy State Department spokesman Marie Harf said.
Troops on the streets
The decision to beef up the troop deployment was taken at a meeting chaired by Sharif and attended by army chief General Raheel Sharif. 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 the protesters of trying to derail the nation's perennially fragile democratic system, as the government struggles with Taleban militancy and a flagging economy.
Opposition parties have shunned Khan's call to unseat the government, while newspapers and business leaders have also criticised Khan's tactics, which include a call for "civil disobedience".
Britain, one of Pakistan's leading partners and a major aid donor, urged the two sides to find a democratic solution to the crisis.
"I hope that all parties in Pakistan can work together under the Constitution to peacefully resolve current political differences," British foreign minister Philip Hammond said in a statement.
The European Union also voiced its support for democracy in Pakistan - and linked it to a highly prized trade deal.
PTI on Monday dramatically announced it would renounce all 34 of its seats in the 342-member parliament and three out of four provincial assemblies.
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.