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Pakistan holds talks with opposition as protesters besiege parliament to pressure PM to quit

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ISLAMABAD — 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.

PHOTO: Police forces deploy outside the secretariat block in Islamabad, Pakistan, Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014. Tens of thousands of protesters entered Islamabad's high-security "Red Zone" the night before, five days after arriving in the capital. Pakistan’s powerful army chief Gen. Rasheel Sharif asked the government to hold negotiations with protesters to settle a mass demonstration outside parliament, officials said. (AP Photo/B.K. Bangash)
Police forces deploy outside the secretariat block in Islamabad, Pakistan, Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014. Tens of thousands of protesters entered Islamabad's high-security "Red Zone" the night before, five days after arriving in the capital. Pakistan’s powerful army chief Gen. Rasheel Sharif asked the government to hold negotiations with protesters to settle a mass demonstration outside parliament, officials said. (AP Photo/B.K. Bangash)

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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PHOTO: Police forces deploy outside the secretariat block in Islamabad, Pakistan, Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014. Tens of thousands of protesters entered Islamabad's high-security "Red Zone" the night before, five days after arriving in the capital. Pakistan’s powerful army chief Gen. Rasheel Sharif asked the government to hold negotiations with protesters to settle a mass demonstration outside parliament, officials said. (AP Photo/B.K. Bangash)
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