By Mubasher Bukhari and Maria Golovnina
ISLAMABAD/LAHORE, Aug 26 (Reuters) – Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met the powerful army chief on Tuesday, a source in his administration said, as a political deadlock over mass protests for the government’s resignation showed no signs of resolution.
Pakistan has been gripped by peaceful opposition protests demanding Sharif’s resignation this month, with thousands of demonstrators camped outside parliament in a country that has experienced a succession of military coups.
“The meeting took place at the prime minister’s house,” said the administration source, who asked not to be identified as he was not authorised to speak to the media.
Sharif and army chief Raheel Sharif discussed the political situation and other matters, the source added. No other details were immediately available.
The army could not be reached for comment.
Protesters led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and firebrand cleric Tahir ul-Qadri have vowed to occupy the capital, Islamabad, until Sharif resigns – a demand the premier has rejected.
Thousands of Khan and Qadri supporters are now camped out in the heart of Islamabad – the so-called “Red zone” – but the gathering is peaceful and security forces protecting the key installations have not used force to disperse them.
Whether the protests fizzle out or take a more violent course ultimately depends on the stance taken by the military in a country ruled by generals for half of its history.
Sharif has a difficult relationship with the army: his last term in office ended in 1999 when then army chief General Pervez Musharraf launched a coup to usher in a decade of military rule.
Relations with the military soured further when Sharif’s government prosecuted Musharraf last year for treason, angering officers who see the army as Pakistan’s saviour and despise politicians as corrupt and inefficient.
Some ruling party officials have accused elements within the military of orchestrating the protests to weaken the civilian government. The military insists it does not meddle in politics.
Few believe the military wants to seize power this time, but there is a widespread perception it is using the protests as an opportunity to weaken Sharif and put his civilian government under its thumb.
Government officials and protest leaders have been in sporadic talks since last week to find a peaceful way out of the crisis but Khan has refused to back down unless Sharif quits.
Qadri, for his part, has given the government another deadline to quit by the middle of this week, saying otherwise circumstances might be “uncontrollable”.