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Pakistani minister urges opposition leaders to back off their demand for PM's resignation

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ISLAMABAD — A Cabinet minister on Wednesday urged Pakistan's two key opposition figures leading mass rallies outside parliament to back off their demand for the prime minister's resignation in ongoing talks with the government.

The call by Railways Minister Saad Rafiq came as authorities and the two opposition leaders — cricket-star-turned-politician Imran Khan and fiery cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri — were set to continue negotiations later Wednesday.

The negotiators are trying to find a peaceful solution to a lingering crisis that has raised fears of political instability in this Islamic nation, which has largely been ruled by dictators.

Khan and Qadri have been leading daily rallies for nearly two weeks in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, demanding Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif resign over alleged election fraud in the vote that brought him to power last year. On Monday night, the crowd numbered up to 10,000 people, police said.

Although the demonstrations have fallen well short of the 1 million protesters that both opposition leaders promised, heavy security measures have badly harmed business in the capital.

Both Khan and Qadri, a dual Pakistani-Canadian citizen with a wide following, have also demanded reforms in Pakistan's electoral system to prevent future vote fraud.

PHOTO: Supporters of Pakistan's cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan rally in Karachi, Pakistan, Monday, Aug. 25, 2014. Thousands of Imran Khan's and Muslim  cleric Tahir-ul- Qadri's supporters are besieging parliament in the capital to pressure Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to resign over alleged election fraud. (AP Photo/Shakil Adil)
Supporters of Pakistan's cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan rally in Karachi, Pakistan, Monday, Aug. 25, 2014. Thousands of Imran Khan's and Muslim cleric Tahir-ul- Qadri's supporters are besieging parliament in the capital to pressure Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to resign over alleged election fraud. (AP Photo/Shakil Adil)

"Demanding resignation by force is not a good practice," Rafiq told parliament Wednesday. "We want a peaceful resolution of the crisis. We are showing flexibility."

He said the government has held four rounds of talks so far with Khan and Qadri but gave no specifics.

Rafiq also urged Qadri to withdraw his 48-hour "deadline," which expires later in the day and which the cleric set for Sharif's resignation.

Qadri says he is "prepared to die" to see Sharif resign. He has also demanded that Sharif and the premier's younger brother, who is chief minister in the eastern Punjab province, be arrested over an incident in June in the eastern city of Lahore when 14 people were killed during clashes between Qadri's supporters and police.

Sharif reiterated on Wednesday that he has no intention of stepping down, saying the rallies in Islamabad will not deter his government from abiding by "constitution and law."

"We are not afraid of such things," he said of the protests.

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

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PHOTO: A child sleeps as her mother claps during a protest staged by Pakistan's cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan near the parliament building in Islamabad, Pakistan, Monday, Aug. 25, 2014. Thousands of supporters of Pakistan's cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and Muslim cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri are besieging parliament in the capital to pressure Sharif to resign over alleged election fraud. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)
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