ISLAMABAD - Pakistan's army chief was named mediator Thursday in a fortnight-long political crisis, fuelling speculation that the military could use the protests against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to re-assert its dominance over the civilian government.
Thousands of demonstrators led by populist cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri and politician Imran Khan have been camped outside the parliament building in Islamabad since August 15, demanding the prime minister step down.
Qadri and Khan announced General Raheel Sharif would mediate in the stand-off after the cleric earlier on Thursday rejected the government's decision to launch a murder investigation that named the prime minister as a suspect, saying it was not enough.
"The Pakistan army chief has officially asked us if it will be acceptable to the Azadi (freedom) march if he becomes a mediator and guarantor," Qadri told followers outside parliament Thursday.
"Do I have your consent?" he asked his audience, who loudly replied in the affirmative.
He added the army had asked for "24 hours for mediation".
The protests' other leader, cricket hero turned politician Imran Khan, confirmed the move in a separate speech.
"I want to tell you all that I will not disappoint you. The talks have already started," he added.
The leaders later met with the army chief, according to a military spokesperson on Twitter.
Khan and Qadri have alleged massive cheating in the May 2013 poll that saw Sharif sweep to power with a huge majority, though international observers said the vote was largely free and fair.
After the talks with the army chief Thursday, Khan said he had apprised the general of his party's position that any independent investigation into vote rigging was not possible as long as Nawaz Sharif remained Prime Minister.
"Our sit-in will not be called off until Prime Minister Sharif resigns," he told his supporters at the protest site after the meeting.
The two-week showdown at the heart of the capital has rattled the nuclear-armed state, and shaken Sharif's government just 15 months in to a five-year mandate.
As well as wide-ranging calls for political reform, Qadri has demanded police bring murder charges against Sharif over the killing of at least 10 of his followers in clashes with police in the eastern city of Lahore.
Earlier, a statement from the prime minister's office said that orders had been given to register a murder case against senior government officials including Sharif over the killing of Qadri's followers in an apparent last-ditch effort to resolve the crisis.
But Qadri rejected the move, complaining the police had not included the same terror charges which were levelled at the cleric and his supporters over the incident against members of the government.