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Pakistan minister condemns protests as 'revolt against state'

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (UPDATED) - Pakistan's interior minister Tuesday, September 2 slammed violent anti-government protests as a "revolt against the state" as lawmakers met to discuss the political crisis shaking Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Parliament met for an emergency session after 3 days of clashes between police and club-wielding demonstrators demanding Sharif's resignation.

Sharif has resisted calls for him to go but protest leaders Imran Khan and Tahir-ul-Qadri have refused to back down, raising political tensions to fever pitch.

Violence erupted on Saturday when Khan and Qadri ordered their followers to storm the prime minister's official residence, with protesters throwing rocks at police who responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.

There were further clashes on Sunday and Monday, when activists armed with bamboo batons briefly seized control of the state broadcaster.

The protests have disrupted life in the normally sleepy capital since August 15 and heaped pressure on Sharif, raising the specter of military intervention in a country ruled for half its history by the army.

Khan, who leads the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) opposition party, claims the May 2013 election that swept Sharif to power in a landslide was rigged. Qadri, a populist cleric, says the current political system is corrupt and must be swept away entirely.

But the movements have not energized much widespread support beyond Khan and Qadri's core followers. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said the country should not be held to ransom by a few thousand people.

"This is not a protest or a political gathering. This is a revolt against Pakistan – this is a revolt against the state institutions," he told lawmakers.

Defense minister Khawaja Asif told AFP late on Monday that a cross-party negotiation team was set to approach the protest groups and try to end the standoff, which has seen 3 people killed and hundreds injured in clashes.

Aitzaz Ahsan, a senior leader in the main opposition Pakistan People's Party, said Khan's allegations of rigging should be investigated properly but rejected calls for the government to quit.

"The constitution will be seriously violated if Qadri's lashkar (army) achieves success. This will be a black day for the law and constitution," he told lawmakers.

Sharif himself did not speak during the session, which will resume on Wednesday, but followed proceedings keenly.

Military criticized

The powerful military has called for a swift and peaceful political solution but efforts to negotiate a way out have so far failed.

On Monday Javed Hashmi, the president of PTI, claimed Khan had told party leaders the protests were being coordinated by the military.

Both PTI and the military denied Hashmi's claims but they chimed with the assessment of numerous analysts in recent weeks – that if the army was not directing the protests, it was certainly using them to erode Sharif's authority.

Sharif's relationship with the military has been problematic over the years – his last term as PM ended in a coup led by then-army chief General Pervez Musharraf in 1999.

Since his election last year Sharif is thought to have angered the military by pursuing treason charges against Musharraf and seeking to warm ties with perennial rival India.

The specter of military domination by Pakistan's giant neighbor has long been used as part of the justification for the army's influence and large budget.

The military is usually treated respectfully in Pakistani media, but two major dailies on Tuesday published surprisingly forthright editorials criticising its handling of the current crisis.

Dawn, Pakistan's oldest English-language paper, said the army's failure clearly to support the elected government had destroyed its "carefully constructed veneer of neutrality".

"Staggeringly, the army has 'advised' the government not to use force against violent protesters," Dawn wrote.

"It's as if the army is unaware -- rather, unwilling -- to acknowledge the constitutional scheme of things: it is the government that is supposed to give orders to the army, not the other way around."

The Nation said military commanders were "issuing public advisories to the elected government, which should be simply unacceptable".

The protest site in Islamabad's high-security "red zone" was quiet on Tuesday morning, with paramilitary Rangers guarding the parliament building.

With thousands of people camping out there for the past fortnight, the area in front of parliament is strewn with rubbish and human waste.

A doctor supporting Qadri told AFP he had seen around 1,000 patients, many suffering diarrhea.