Pakistan's powerful Army Chief has stepped in to mediate between the embattled government and the protesters, but the two sides were soon trading charges on who was responsible for the intervention.
"Neither had I asked army nor the armed forces sought a role in the present political crisis," Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told the National Assembly today.
Sharif scotched media reports that it was he who "requested" the army to come to his rescue, saying it was Khan and Qadri who approached Army Chief Raheel Sharif to become a mediator.
Responding to Sharif's statement, an angry Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) chairman Qadri shot back, "I say this categorically that the Prime Minister asked the army to intervene. I am saying, on the record, that we did not make any request asking the army to intervene." "I had not even spoken to the army chief before our meeting yesterday. Imran Khan did not make any request asking the army to intervene either," Qadri said, adding that Sharif made the statement after he saw his government was losing strength.
"If I have said something false then I am willing to accept any punishment," Qadri said addressing his supporters.
The fiery cleric claimed that Sharif was lying.
Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) chairman Khan has so far not reacted to Sharif's statement.
Khan and Qadri, camping here for about two weeks, met with the Army Chief in Rawalpindi overnight.
Khan wants the PML-N government's ouster over alleged rigging in last year's polls which his party lost, while Qadri wants to bring a "revolution" in the country.
According to well places sources, Interior Minister Nisar Chaudhry was also present during these meetings.
"It was agreed that army negotiators will have backdoor interactions with both sides today and prepare ground for an agreement between the two sides," sources said.
The government representatives will also meet the protest leaders and they will approve the agreement mediated by the army.
After meeting General Sharif, Khan told his weary protesters that army has become "neutral umpire" in the crisis. He still demanded the resignation of the Prime Minister.
Qadri also addressed his listless crowd of followers after meeting General Sharif and said he had presented his revolutionary agenda to the Army Chief in the meeting.
Sources said the deal brokered by army will address Khan's concerns about rigging and Qadri's basic demand of inclusion of clauses of anti-terror laws in the case already registered against Prime Minister Sharif, his brother and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and others in Lahore. Analysts said Sharif is expected to survive in the political battle but he will become weak and unable to challenge the army's grip on foreign and security policy of the country.
The blame game between the two sides may affect the reconciliatory efforts of the army as both government and the protest leaders would further stiffen their stances, making bargaining hard, analysts said. Earlier, the opposition flayed the government for taking army's help with opposition leader Khursheed Shah saying they would not allow anyone to go against the Constitution. Meanwhile, leaders from across the political spectrum regretted the political tug of war that led to a crisis where the army got involved to settle dispute.
"After this, we will not be able to hold our heads high," Tehreek-i-Insaf leader Javed Hashmi, who is known for his outspoken opposition to military's involvement in politics, was quoted as saying by the Dawn. "It is shameful time for all politicians who, despite having the time, could not resolve the crisis on their own." Right-wing Jamaat-e-Islami chief Sirajul Haq had a more cautious response. He told a TV channel that if the army could intercede and end this crisis, well and good, but the military had no role in politics. Former Punjab Governor and PPP leader Latif Khosa put the onus of the military's involvement squarely on the ruling PML-N's shoulders.
"After killing 14 innocent PAT workers, the Sharif brothers were unwilling even to register their FIR," he said, adding that the government's delaying tactics in dealing with PAT and PTI further complicated the situation. Talking to DawnNews, prominent lawyer and rights activist Asma Jahangir criticised both Qadri and Khan, saying "Those who had wasted 15 days must be discouraged." Nearly all parliamentary parties and politicians pleaded with them, but they did not heed anyone's advice, she said.
"Now, on a single phone call, they rush to Army House." The army, which has so far been passive in the confrontation between the government and protesters, has a history of capturing power from democratically elected governments. Sharif himself was removed from office during a previous stint as prime minister in a military coup by the then army chief Gen Pervez Musharraf in 1999. When politicians differed in 1977 over the outcome of polls, then army chief Gen Zia-ul Haq imposed martial law.