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Pakistan's prime minister meets army chief amid crisis

By Mehreen Zahra-Malik

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met the country's powerful army chief on Tuesday as a political deadlock over mass protests to demand the government's resignation showed no signs of resolution.

Pakistan has been gripped by peaceful anti-government protests demanding Sharif's resignation this month, with thousands of demonstrators camped outside parliament in a country that has experienced a succession of military coups.

Sharif's press office said army chief Raheel Sharif and the prime minister discussed the protests and agreed to resolve the issue "expeditiously in the best national interest".

The meeting was one of many the two leaders have held in recent weeks over the impasse, said a senior source at army headquarters in the garrison town of Rawalpindi.

"They are discussing solutions," said the official, who asked not to be named as he was not authorized to talk to reporters. "This situation is very alarming for the army. We are dealing with mobs. What if things get violent?"

The army's media wing declined official comment.

Protesters led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and firebrand cleric Tahir ul-Qadri have vowed to occupy the capital, Islamabad, until Sharif resigns - a demand the premier has firmly rejected.

Thousands of protesters are now camped out in the heart of Islamabad - the so-called "Red Zone" - but the gathering has a festival-like atmosphere. Security forces protecting nearby installations have not used force to disperse the crowds.

Whether the protests fizzle out or take a more violent course ultimately depends on the stance taken by the military in a country ruled by generals for half of its history.

"No one wants to take any steps that would make the situation worse," the military source said.

On Monday, the supreme court ordered protest leaders and the government to find a compromise solution so that the "Red Zone" - home to parliament, the prime minister's home, embassies and government offices - could be cleared by the following day.

But protesters defied the court's orders and stayed put for the 13th day on Tuesday, scattering the area with garbage as a putrid smell of human waste and rubbish hung in the air.

Police at the site said some of their colleagues had fallen ill. "It is impossible to be here sometimes, the smell is so bad," said constable Ahmed Ali. "If the revolution is coming, let it come already. Everybody wants to go home."

"EXTREME POSSIBILITIES"

Sharif has a difficult relationship with the army: his last term in office ended in 1999 when then army chief General Pervez Musharraf launched a coup to usher in a decade of military rule.

Ties with the military soured further when the government prosecuted Musharraf for treason last year, angering officers who see the army as Pakistan's savior and despise politicians as corrupt and inefficient.

Sharif also opposed a military offensive to crush Taliban insurgents and, crucially, sought reconciliation with neighbor India - a perceived threat the army uses to justify its huge budget and national importance.

Some officials have accused elements within the military of orchestrating the recent protests to weaken the civilian government. The military insists it does not meddle in politics.

Few believe the military wants to seize power this time, but there is a widespread perception it is using the protests as an opportunity to weaken Sharif.

Government officials and protest leaders have been in sporadic talks since last week to find a peaceful solution to the crisis but Khan has refused to back down unless Sharif quits over accusations that he rigged last year's general election.

On Monday, Qadri too gave the government another deadline to quit by the middle of this week, saying otherwise circumstances might be "uncontrollable".

Government sources fear that if the agitation turns violent, the army could exploit the situation to seize power.

"It is unlikely," said the military source, referring to the chances of Sharif stepping down or the army forcing him to quit. "But if events overtake ... one can't say," he said. "We should all work to avoid extreme possibilities."

(Additional reporting by Mubasher Bokhari in Lahore and Maria Golovnina in Islamabad; Writing by Maria Golovnina and Mehreen Zahra-Malik; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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