ISLAMABAD - Pakistan's powerful army called on the government and protesters to resolve their differences peacefully Sunday night but ominously warned it was "committed to playing its part in ensuring security of the state", after clashes left three dead.
The meeting of top generals, brought forward a day, came after violence broke out Saturday night when thousands of supporters of politician Imran Khan and firebrand cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri tried to storm Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's house, demanding his resignation.
Opposition groups marched to the capital on August 15 in a bid to topple Sharif's government, triggering a crisis that has raised the spectre of military intervention in a country that has been ruled for half its history by the army.
The fighting continued Sunday between police in riot gear and a few hundred protesters, many of whom came armed with batons and slingshots loaded with marbles.
Shipping containers were set ablaze, several vehicles were torched, and hundreds of tear gas canisters lay strewn on the ground on Islamabad's normally pristine Constitution Avenue after almost 24 hours of battle.
At nightfall protesters began preparing for fresh clashes - breaking up the road to use chunks as missiles and assembling crude gas masks from cloth and plastic bottles - but the situation appeared relatively calm after the army meeting.
The generals, gathering in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, voiced support for democracy - but also stressed their own role in maintaining security.
"While reaffirming support to democracy, the conference reviewed with serious concern, the existing political crisis and the violent turn it has taken, resulting in large scale injuries and loss of lives," they said in a statement.
"It was once again reiterated that the situation should be resolved politically without wasting any time and without recourse to violent means."
They added: "(The) army remains committed to playing its part in ensuring security of the state and will never fall short of meeting national aspirations."
The statement opened with a backing for the government but ended on a hawkish note - which a senior government official said reflected differing views within the army's top brass.
"There are some who have stronger opinions and some who have softer opinions," the official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Pakistan's last period of military rule ended in 2008. But the official said another coup remained "less likely".
"We have travelled this road for seven to eight years, so things have been tested, the institutions are much stronger," he said.
Opposition leaders claim the 2013 election which swept Sharif to power was rigged, though local and foreign observers rated the polls as relatively fair and credible.