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Dialogue hits bumpy road

* PTI says it has suspended talks with govt over its plans to launch crackdown on protesters * Will remain suspended until govt changes attitude, ‘reins in’ ministers

ISLAMABAD: War of nerves between the PML-N government and twin-march leadership (PTI and PAT) staging a sit-in at Constitution Avenue peaked on Thursday as talks could not formally resume amidst fears of a looming crackdown on the marchers. 
The government, however, kept open the back channel communication with both the PTI and PAT, asking leaders of both the parties to return to the parleys – both didn’t comply, even though Dr Qadri claimed he had not shut the negotiation option. PTI Chairman Imran Khan hardened his stance on Thursday signalling towards an imminent change (through military’s mediation) he believed would materialize until Saturday.  
PTI Vice Chairman Shah Mahmood Qureshi said the Punjab governor was informed about the suspension of talks with the government negotiating team. Qureshi held a telephonic conversation with Chaudhry Sarwar and told him that the PTI team will not come to the hotel for the negotiation. Explaining the reason, the PTI said the statements of federal ministers were deteriorating the environment for talks.
The government quarters, however, remained confident, saying the efforts by march leaders to suck in the military leadership would not bear fruit, and they would finally have to sit in with political forces to secure honourable exit from the political impasse. The PML-N side stiffened its position a little on Thursday on the heels of a resolution by the National Assembly denouncing demands to dissolve the National Assembly, and resignation of the prime minister.    
As the day progressed, suspicions between the government and march leaders grew further as some aides of the PM suspected that some hidden hands, coordinating and synchronising the PTI and PAT’s strategy, were actually banking on incitement of violence that may lead to anarchy. The ruling quarters feared that those (PML-Q in the PAT camp, and Sheikh Rashid in PTI bandwagon) who didn’t want peaceful resolution of the political impasse wanted violence that may lead to baton charge, tear gassing and arrests of the twin rally participants and leaders, a situation the government would avoid at all costs. 
“These elements have literally hijacked PTI chairman and rest of the reasonable voices like Javed Hashmi, Shah Mahmood Qureshi or Jahangir Tareen seem helpless,” said a federal minister on condition of anonymity. Thought it forcefully denied any plans of crackdown on the marchers, the government kept its preparedness in full swing for any eventuality including arrest of the PTI and PAT leaders in the days to come. 
As they asked workers and voters to throng the march venue, Dr Qadri and then Imran Khan, kept on demanding lifting of containers and blockades on major roads leading towards the capital as well as the sit-in venue. Both the PTI and PAT refused to negotiate with the government after initial parleys on Wednesday as the government suspected that the march leaders were trying to raise the political temperature, naively hoping to have some kind of the intervention by country’s powerful military to pressurize the PML-N dispensation to offer something substantial that could satisfy the agitation leaders.      
Though, Punjab Governor Chaudhry Sarwar, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, Ahsan Iqbal and other aides to the PM kept the backdoor channel with PTI a nd PAT open through telephonic contacts. But no formal meeting could take place between government committees and those nominated by PTI and PAT.


Nawaz Sharif, after securing backing from all the parties in the parliament except the PTI, remained in closed-door consultations with ministers and aides. The premier’s team also consulted with allies and opposition leaders and parliamentary leaders on the PTI and PAT demands. The government’s ministerial committee and opposition legislators who met the PAT leadership on Wednesday night suspected that Dr Qadri’s main ally, the PML-Q leadership, did not want the negotiations to succeed by demanding not only the resignation but arrest of the PM and the Punjab CM.  “PAT President Dr Raheeq Abbasi and Secretary General Gandapur were lenient and diplomatic as they talked to the government ministers and opposition members, but PML-Q MNA Tariq Bashir Cheema, Sardar Asif Ahmed Ali and former Punjab governor Ghulam Mustafa Khar were insisting during the parleys to show them Sharif’s resignation first,” a committee member told Daily Times, seeking anonymity. The government nominated committee of ministers Ahsan Iqbal and Lt Gen (r) Abdul Qadri Baloch and accompanying opposition legislators, Ijazul Haq and Haider Abbas Rizvi were surprised to hear the demands of the PAT leader as they met them near Dr Qadri’s container on Wednesday night. Meanwhile, the government strategists on Wednesday night and early morning on Thursday tried to play a nerve game with both PTI and PAT leaderships by blocking entry and exit points of Constitution Avenue as well as of Islamabad for a few hours. Heavy police deployment was seen on major roads of Islamabad and roads connecting capital with Rawalpindi, GT Road, and Motorway. Containers were also placed on entry and exit points of Islamabad in an effort to block entry of more PTI and PAT workers into the city. Earlier in the day, the talks between government and PTI broke amidst unconfirmed reports that the government intended to start a crackdown on protestors. These rumours gained credence as the news of replacement of Islamabad Inspector General Zulfiqar Cheema was aired on media. Dr Qadri was the first one to warn the rulers not to indulge in a crackdown. Coming out of his container, Dr Qadri warned the government not to block entry and exit of Constitution Avenue as well as of Islamabad.    As Qadri left the stage, PTI Chairman Imran Khan reached atop his container alone and appealed to the workers and masses to throng the sit-in venue. Displaying an aggressive body language Imran for-warned the interior secretary, acting Islamabad IG and police not to touch any of his workers, otherwise get prepared to face his wrath. Around 2:30pm on Thursday afternoon, Imran asked his party committee, which was about to hold a meeting with Punjab Governor Ch Sarwar led government committee, to reach back to the protest venue and end talks. The government committee however kept on waiting for the PTI leaders at a local hotel to resume the talks from where it ended late Wednesday night.   Imran tried to portray the IG’s removal as a government plan to start crackdown, saying the police official had refused to use force against the protestors. Sources, however, said Cheema wanted to proceed on leave and was worried about the work fatigue his subordinates were going through for one month. Interestingly, Imran did not give any warning to his friend, Nisar Ali Khan, the interior minister, who is boss of all the police and administration officials in Islamabad. Sources confirmed that Nisar was actually unhappy with Cheema for getting appointment of top cop of Islamabad without his consent. 

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