Jubilation as Pakistan protests reach parliament
Islamabad - Jubilant anti-government demonstrators in Pakistan on Wednesday claimed victory after tearing down barricades and occupying a key road outside Parliament, where they are demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif over alleged voting fraud.
Despite the mounting pressure, Sharif's party said he would not quit, while the country's powerful army called for a negotiated settlement.
The twin protests led by a famous cricketer-turned-politician and a popular cleric have brought tens of thousands of people into the streets, raising fears of unrest in the nuclear-armed US ally with a history of military coups and dictatorship.
"Situation requires patience, wisdom and sagacity from all stakeholders to resolve prevailing impasse", army spokesperson General Asim Saleem Bajwa said on Twitter. He said the government buildings in the so-called Red Zone were a "symbol of state" and were being protected by the army.
Imran Khan, the cricket star leading one of the protests, has called on demonstrators not to enter Parliament but warned he would lead his supporters into the premier's office if Sharif does not step down by Wednesday evening.
Sharif's office is located near the Parliament, and authorities have deployed police, paramilitary rangers and troops to guard it.
Khan, who heads parliament's third-largest political bloc, and fiery cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri, who enjoys a wide religious following have led twin rallies calling on Sharif to step down, accusing him of rigging the May 2013 election that brought him to office in the country's first democratic transfer of power.
Sharif was forced from office in 1999 when the then-army chief Pervez Musharraf seized power in a military coup.
The US embassy in Islamabad said its Consular section would remain closed on Wednesday, and advised American citizens to keep a low profile and avoid large gatherings.
However, a peaceful and celebratory atmosphere prevailed outside the Parliament on Wednesday, a day after tens of thousands of protesters entered the high-security Red Zone.
Dancing to the beat of drums, protesters chanted anti-government slogans and said Sharif's government would soon fall.
"Yesterday, people were saying we will never be able to reach the Parliament. Look, we are standing right in front of the Parliament", said Rabia Naeem, aged 22, a Khan supporter. "Imran Khan is the only hope to save Pakistan from corrupt rulers", she said.
Asad Hafeez, a 45-year-old Qadri supporter, said reforms were needed before any new elections.
"We need electoral reforms and a neutral government to hold free and fair elections. It will only happen when Nawaz Sharif resigns", he said.