Pakistan's Imran Khan calls off talks to end protest impasse

Pakistani opposition politician Imran Khan addresses his supporters during what has been dubbed a "freedom march" in Islamabad on Aug 20, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Pakistani opposition politician Imran Khan addresses his supporters during what has been dubbed a "freedom march" in Islamabad on Aug 20, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

ISLAMABAD (AFP) - Pakistani opposition politician Imran Khan on Thursday called off talks with the government aimed at ending protests seeking the fall of the prime minister, which have destabilised the nuclear-armed nation.

Mr Khan and populist cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri have led followers protesting outside parliament for the past two days demanding Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif quit.

Talks to end the standoff - which began a week ago with "long marches" from the eastern city of Lahore - started on Wednesday but made little headway.

Mr Khan insists the May 2013 General Election, won in a landslide by Mr Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) party, was rigged, despite independent international observers judging it free and credible.

The former cricket star has demanded Mr Sharif resign and call new elections and on Thursday repeated his insistence the PM must quit before talks.

"The talks with the government are over. How can these talks proceed when we first want resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif?" Mr Khan said.

"I want to tell you Nawaz Sharif that I will not leave this place until you step down."

Between them, the protest rallies of Mr Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Mr Qadri's Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) have drawn tens of thousands of supporters this week.

But as Mr Khan made his address from the top of a shipping container outside parliament on Thursday, there were barely a few thousand supporters scattered over the protest site.

PAT has said it wants "meaningful dialogue" and the powerful army has called for a negotiated end to the showdown.

A number of Pakistan's key trade partners - and aid donors - including the United States, Britain and the European Union have also urged a political solution.

The showdown has added to instability in a country that has had three military coups since its creation in 1947 and which is struggling with a homegrown Taliban insurgency, a crippling power crisis and a sluggish economy.

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 rallies.

If PAT were to reach a settlement with the government and withdraw, PTI's position would be significantly weakened, despite Mr Khan's tough stance.

Neither movement has mobilised mass support beyond their core followers and opposition parties have shunned Mr Khan's call to unseat the government and begin a campaign of civil disobedience.

On Thursday the Lower House of Parliament passed a unanimous resolution rejecting calls for Sharif's resignation and vowing to uphold democracy.

Lawyers also staged a national strike in protest at the PAT and PTI sit-ins.

"This style of politics and call for disobedience is harming Pakistan's economy, a call for civil disobedience is equal to a constitutional coup," Mr Yaseen Azad, senior leader of the Supreme Court Bar Association, told Geo TV.