Pakistan's prime minister, weakened by weeks of opposition protests calling for him to resign, distanced himself from an army move to intervene in the crisis on Friday, saying he did not turn to the military for help to defuse the stand-off.
Nawaz Sharif's efforts to end the conflict have repeatedly failed in recent days, leaving Pakistan locked in a dangerous deadlock with thousands of protesters massing outside parliament for weeks in a country that has seen a string of military coups.
Opposition leaders Imran Khan and Tahir ul-Qadri announced late on Thursday they would directly negotiate with army chief General Raheel Sharif.
Both men later had talks with the general. Qadri has not commented on the discussions while Khan said the army would act as a guarantor on one of his key demands, for an investigation into his accusations of fraud in an election last year.
The army has not commented.
Prime Minister Sharif, who is not related to the army chief, emerged significantly weakened from the crisis. Turning to the army for help could be embarrassing for a prime minister who himself was toppled in a military coup in 1999 during his previous term in office.
Addressing parliament on Friday, Sharif said he had nothing to do with the army's decision to step into the conflict.
"The army did not ask to play the role of mediator, neither have we requested them to play such a role," he told the assembly where he enjoys a strong majority.
But Sharif said he had not objected to both Khan and Qadri meeting the army chief.
"If ... they want to meet the army chief then they should certainly meet," he said.
A nuclear-armed nation of 180 million, Pakistan has been ruled by the military for half of its entire 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.
However, its public intervention has demonstrated just how fragile Pakistan's democracy still is more than a year since Sharif swept to office in the country's first democratic transition of power.
"This is the end of democracy, the constitution and supremacy of the parliament in the country," retired Justice Tariq Mehmood was quoted as saying by the respected Dawn daily.
PROTESTS LOSE STEAM?
Sharif has displeased the army by trying to strengthen civilian rule and improve relations with India and Afghanistan, and the latest conflict has given