Pakistan's powerful military warned yesterday that its patience had been thoroughly tested after being threatened by Islamist hardliners enraged at the acquittal of a Christian woman for blasphemy, as thousands joined mass protests.
Spokesman Asif Ghafoor said the armed forces' tolerance had been pushed after hardliners called for a mutiny against its top brass earlier this week in response to the Supreme Court's dismissal of blasphemy charges against Asia Bibi -- ending her eight year ordeal on death row.
Mobile services in major cities across Pakistan remained down throughout the day as religious parties took to the streets for another day of demonstrations against the Supreme Court's decision.
"We are tolerating remarks against us but action can be taken according to the law and constitution," the spokesman told state media, saying he hoped that the dispute "would be resolved through negotiations peacefully".
"Don't force us into taking action," he added.
Blasphemy is a massively inflammatory charge in Muslim-majority Pakistan, where even unproven allegations of insulting Islam and its Prophet Mohammed can provoke death at the hands of vigilantes.
The protests are being largely led by the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan party, which is known for its hardline stance on blasphemy issues.
Officials said talks with the protesters were ongoing ahead of nationwide protests that kicked off after Friday prayers -- the holiest day of the Islamic week and a time when the size of demonstrations can often swell.
TLP leaders, however, have said negotiations with authorities were "deadlocked" and vowed to continue holding sit-ins.
"They have threatened to kill us with bullets, so we have formally decided that we will stay and will not be frightened by any threat," TLP leader Afzal Qadri told supporters in Lahore.
Several mainstream religious parties also held separate demonstrations in major cities following prayers, with thousands of demonstrators converging near government offices in the capital Islamabad.