Pakistan PM dismisses political crisis as 'tiny storm'

Pakistani commuters wait at traffic lights alongside a poster of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on a highway in Islamabad on August 25, 2014. Sharif on Saturday dismissed a political crisis triggered by protests aimed at unseating his government as
Pakistani commuters wait at traffic lights alongside a poster of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on a highway in Islamabad on August 25, 2014. Sharif on Saturday dismissed a political crisis triggered by protests aimed at unseating his government as "a tiny storm" that would be ended soon. -- PHOTO: AFP

ISLAMABAD (AFP) - Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Saturday dismissed a political crisis triggered by protests aimed at unseating his government as "a tiny storm" that would be ended soon.

Thousands of supporters of opposition leader Imran Khan and populist cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri have been camped outside parliament since Aug 15 demanding Sharif quit, claiming the election which swept him to power last year was rigged.

"This is just a tiny storm, a tumult, which would be ended in a few days," Sharif told reporters in the eastern city of Lahore.

However, the "protest sit-in has caused massive loss to Pakistan's economy," he said, adding: "We will retrieve that but they must realise that protests have affected the development projects."

More than a week of government efforts to negotiate an end to the standoff made little headway, with cricketer-turned-politician Khan adamant that Sharif must resign.

But Sharif said all the demands had already been accepted.

"We have already accepted all their demands, of electoral reforms and establishment of a commission," Sharif said, referring to a judicial commission to investigate rigging claims.

Sharif added the findings of the judicial commission would be made public and would be acceptable to his government, but Khan again on Saturday rejected this and reiterated his demand that Sharif resign.

Late on Saturday, both Khan and Qadri announced they would move their protests from parliament house to outside the prime minister's house, some 500m away.

"We will remain peaceful, we will sit there and will continue our sit in," Qadri told his followers.

Khan said it was their "right" to peacefully protest" outside the prime minister's house.

Thousands of security personnel have been deployed to maintain order, while the government has already doubled the contingent of soldiers guarding sensitive buildings in the capital's sensitive red zone area to 700.

Sharif's government has also come under fire since Thursday for asking the army to mediate in the two-week political crisis.

Interior Minister Chaudhry Ali Nisar Khan told parliament on Friday the protesters' unwillingness to trust anyone had left no alternative but army mediation.

The country's powerful army chief, General Raheel Sharif, on Thursday held talks with Qadri and 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.

Khan alleges the 2013 general election that swept Sharif to power in a landslide was rigged, though international observers said the vote was largely free and fair.

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 of Islamabad, but their call has not mobilised mass support in a country of 180 million people.