Three people died and hundreds were injured in clashes between police and opposition protesters in Pakistan's capital Islamabad on Saturday, prompting the government to announce on Sunday that it was willing to re-open talks with the opposition.
The violence, which began late Saturday and continued early Sunday, erupted after around 25,000 people marched from parliament to the prime minister's house, where some attempted to remove barricades around it with cranes, an AFP reporter at the scene said.
Police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.
Islamabad police chief Khalid Khattak told AFP that police exercised restraint but the protesters were armed with axes, wire cutters and hammers.
"They had a crane and drove it until the entrance of the presidency. We are using only tear gas and firing rubber bullets where needed," Khattak said.
Railways minister Khawaja Saad Rafique said protesters tried to uproot the entry gate of the prime minister's house.
The protesters, led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and populist cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri, are demanding Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif quit amid allegations of vote rigging.
Khan alleges the 2013 polls were rigged as part of a conspiracy involving the former chief justice and thousands of election commission workers.
Qadri has demanded wholesale reform to the political system, and called for an interim "unity government" while they are implemented.
"We will continue our struggle against the government, till our last breath," Khan has said, calling for demonstrations across Pakistan.
The crisis took on a new dimension earlier in the week after the government asked the powerful army to mediate, raising fears the military would use the situation to enact a "soft coup" and increase its dominance over civilian authorities.
Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation of 180 million, has been ruled by the military for half of its history and has repeatedly oscillated between civilian and military rule.
Although the army's role is key to how the crisis unfolds, few believe the army is bent on seizing power again.
Nevertheless, its public intervention has demonstrated the fragility of Pakistan's democracy, more than a year after Sharif swept to office in the country's first democratic transition of power.
Sharif has taken on the army by trying to strengthen civilian rule and improve relations with India and Afghanistan, and the latest conflict has given the military an opportunity to sideline him on security and foreign policy issues.
Sharif also angered the military by putting the former army chief, Pervez Musharraf, on trial for treason. Musharraf ousted Sharif in a 1999 coup.
The army's involvement is likely to unnerve some Pakistanis but it also offers Khan and Qadri a face-saving solution to end their protest as both are seen as being close to the military.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)
Date created : 2014-08-30