ISLAMABAD: Pakistani opposition politician Imran Khan Thursday called off talks with the government aimed at ending protests seeking the fall of the prime minister, which have unnerved the nuclear-armed nation.
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.
Khan insists the May 2013 general election, won in a landslide by Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) party, and was rigged, despite independent international observers judging it free and credible.
The former cricket star has demanded Sharif resign and calls 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?” 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 Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) have drawn tens of thousands of supporters this week.
But as 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.
The head of the Islamabad police was unexpectedly replaced on Thursday, officials said. Qadri said this was because he refused to open fire on the protesters.
Defence Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif denied suggestions a crackdown on the protests was imminent.
“We have let them come for the past eight-nine days — why would we crack down now?” he told reporters in parliament.