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Pakistan Holds Talks With Protesters   08/21 06:27

   ISLAMABAD (AP) -- Pakistani officials held "initial" talks before dawn 
Thursday with representatives from two opposition groups whose supporters have 
been besieging the parliament for a second day demanding the prime minister 
resign over alleged election fraud, the government said.

   The development was a sign of easing tensions in what has been a dramatic 
standoff in the capital, Islamabad, where twin protests by thousands of 
supporters of opposition politician Imran Khan and fiery cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri 
have virtually shut down the city and raised fears of unrest.

   The rallies started last week in the eastern city of Lahore and later moved 
to Islamabad.

   The protesters, who want Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to resign and claim 
vote fraud in last year's parliamentary elections, tore down barricades late 
Tuesday and entered the so-called "Red Zone" that houses key government 
buildings and diplomatic posts.

   "We have held initial talks," Cabinet minister Ahsan Iqbal said Thursday in 
televised comments as representative from Khan's Tehrik-e-Insaf party stood 
beside him.

   "These talks will continue because we cannot afford any political crisis ... 
we hope we will find a solution to it soon," said Iqbal, adding the two sides 
are trying to find a "win-win solution."

   Shah Mahmood Qureshi, a senior leader of Khan's party, said the opposition 
presented six demands to the government, including one on Sharif's resignation.

   The other demands involve electoral reforms, setting up a caretaker 
government, removal of top election commission officials and accountability of 
those who rigged last year's elections. It is unlikely Sharif would give ground 
on those demands, which the government considers illegal.

   Thursday's talks came after Pakistan's powerful army chief, Gen. Rasheel 
Sharif, requested that Sharif's government negotiate with the protesters.

   Tensions had also spiked on Wednesday, when Qadri asked his supporters to 
block the main gates of the parliament building and prevent lawmakers from 
going in or leaving.

   Qadri also asked supporters to block Sharif from getting from the 
parliament, where he was trapped, to his office building nearby. Sharif later 
managed to use a back exit to get to his office.

   On Thursday, Sharif was back in parliament where lawmakers adopted a 
resolution rejecting the opposition's "unconstitutional demands" and vowing to 
"uphold the supremacy of the constitution" of Pakistan and the "sovereignty of 
the parliament."

   "We will not allow the democratic setup to get derailed," said Aftab 
Sherpao, a Sharif ally.

   Tehmina Daultana, a lawmaker from Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N party, 
insisted Sharif should not resign.

   The protesters accuse Sharif of rigging the May 2013 election that brought 
him to office in the country's first ever democratic transfer of power.

   Sharif was forced from office after a previous stint as prime minister in 
1999, when the then-army chief Pervez Musharraf seized power in a coup.


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