A populist Pakistani cleric calling for electoral reforms and an end to corruption has called on tens of thousands of his followers camped outside parliament in Islamabad to remain in place while he holds negotiations with the government.
Canadian-Pakistani academic and preacher Tahir-ul Qadri had given the government until 3pm local time [10:00 GMT] on Thursday to negotiate on his demands for key reforms.
Four representative of the government were reported to have begun negotiations with him at 3.45pm [10:45 GMT].
The committee members includes Farooq Sattar from the MQM, a key ally of the ruling coalition, and Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain from the PML Q, also a coalition partner.
Many of Qadri’s supporters have been camped out on the road and grassy verges of the main commercial avenue in Islamabad since early Tuesday, often cowering under sheets to fend off the bad weather.
Addressing the crowds before news of the government negotiations, Qadri said “The situation does not allow me to put all the people, young people, children, women to further test.
“I give the government, I give the rulers a deadline of one and a half hours. This deadline will end at 3pm. Then we will announce our next action.
“Today is the last day of this sit-in. Tomorrow there will be no sit-in. We have to end it today.”
Earlier Raja Pervez Ashraf , the prime minister, had chaired a meeting of coalition partners, several of whom have urged the government to start dialogue with Qadri.
Deputy information minister Samsam Bukhari told private TV station Geo the government was open to talks.
Qadri wants parliament dissolved and a caretaker government set up in consultation with the military and judiciary to implement key reforms before free elections can be held.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik threatened overnight to disperse the crowd, but President Asif Ali Zardari quickly intervened to say that force would not be used.
“I want to give negotiations a last chance. I want to give peace a last chance and I want to give democracy a last chance,” said Qadri.
The government has so far stuck to its position that parliament will disband in mid-March to make way for a caretaker government, set up in consultation with political parties, and elections within 60 days, sometime by mid-May.