Pakistan's military has rejected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s claims he did not ask the army to play a role in defusing days of crippling anti-government demonstrations in the capital.
The embarrassing move is likely to increase pressure on the embattled Pakistani leader and offer more fuel to protesters calling for his removal from office.
Prime Minister Sharif has come under severe criticism from pro-democracy forces in the country, largely for turning to the army in his bid to resolve what analysts see as a crisis that needs political means to settle.
Even parliamentary allies and opposition political parties not involved in the mass protests sought an explanation for what they condemned as an anti-democracy move.
The criticism prompted Sharif to briefly address the national parliament on Friday. during which he tried to distance himself from the move.
"The army did not ask for any mediatory role neither have we requested them to do so," he said, adding that both [protest leaders Imran] Khan and [Tahir-ul] Qadri were insisting on meeting with the army chief and he did not object to it.
Hours later the military swiftly rejected the assertions. An army spokesman said its chief, General Raheel Sharif, “was asked by the government to play a facilitative role for resolution of the current impasse," adding the request was made during a meeting with General Sharif at the prime minister’s office the previous day.
Thousands of protesters led by opposition politician Imran Khan and a populist cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri have camped out in Islamabad for more than two weeks demanding Prime Minister Sharif step down.
The prime minister refuses to accept what he has criticized as an unconstitutional demand and his attempts to seek a negotiated settlement of the political turmoil have not succeeded.
Following Sharif’s statement and its denial by the military, Khan told his supporters late Friday he will continue protesting until the prime minister is forced out of office.
The cricketer-turned politician asked why should people in Pakistan pay taxes and not indulge in corrupt practices when their leader Nawaz Sharif blatantly lies on the floor of the parliament.
Qadri also addressed his followers not far from Khan’s rally and criticized the prime minister for making false statements.
Khan leads the third largest political bloc in parliament. He is demanding a fresh vote under a reformed electoral system, alleging last year’s parliamentary polls were rigged in favor of Nawaz Sharif’s party.
Qadri wants charges brought against the prime minister and other top government officials, blaming them for the murder of 14 Qadri followers in a June police crackdown.
The army has staged several coups to seize power, a major cause critics cite for the fledgling democracy in Pakistan. They urge the stakeholders to resolve the standoff, blaming politicians’ inability to resolve such confrontations paved the way for past military interventions.
Tahira Abdullah is a human rights activist and a staunch opponent of any military role in national politics.
“I was hoping against hope that maybe we had turned the tide and we were in a transition mode. But today I have realized we have not turned the tide, we are not in a transition mode, we have gone back another 40 years in Pakistani history," said Abdullah.
Pakistan last year marked its first ever democratic transition of power from one elected government to another when Nawaz Sharif took office after his party won a majority in the parliamentary elections. But his decision to try former coup leader and retired general, Pervez Musharraf, for high treason, many believe, has strained his ties with the military.