Monday, July 9, 2007

Pakistani Mosque Siege Goes From Standoff To Crisis, But Negotiated Settlement May Still Be Possible

It's been a horrible week for friends and family of the students still inside the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque), besieged in the heart of Islamabad in a standoff that may be turning into a hostage crisis. (Or maybe it was always a hostage crisis, but this fact is only now becoming readily apparent.) In any case, the stress is starting to tell, as Dawn's Qudssia Akhlaque reports:

Despair grips capital as stand-off turns into crisis
ISLAMABAD, July 7: Among the parents of numerous students trapped inside the Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa a deep sense of despair and desperation prevailed on the fifth day of the standoff. By all indications the operation was fast turning into a hostage crisis.

Dozens of flashing ambulances, fire brigades and ‘rescue services’ vans parked on both sides of the heavily guarded streets close to the Lal Masjid, were a constant reminder of the worst case scenario. The security forces comprising the Rangers, army and police were deployed in full strength turning the capital’s otherwise peaceful Sector G-6 into a virtual war zone.

Pain, nervousness and fatigue was written on the faces of their parents and relatives who had travelled long distances to the capital after receiving SOS calls from their dear ones wanting exit from the seminary. On Saturday they looked emotionally and physically drained. The common refrain was that their children were hungry, thirsty and scared but were not allowed to leave.

Meanwhile, the general fear is that the standoff may end in a bloody rescue operation in which many innocent lives are bound to be lost. But the government and security forces are clear that it be conducted as the last option.

The July 3 episode that began as an operation against the weaponised men of Lal Masjid is now beginning to acquire the colour of a humanitarian crisis testing the nerves and political acumen of the government.
Other accounts have been somewhat confusing, with the Daily Times reporting:

Journalists barred from Lal Masjid
ISLAMABAD: Lal Masjid deputy chief cleric Abdul Rasheed Ghazi invited reporters to a press conference in Lal Masjid on Sunday, but security forces refused entry to journalists and later, ARY Television reported, entered the Rawalpindi-Islamabad press club and harassed the journalists there.

Ghazi had invited journalists for a press conference, pledging safe passage, but security forces believed it was a tactic to gain more hostages and thus did not allow reporters to enter the mosque. Ghazi was offered a telephonic press conference instead.

Security personnel on Sunday evening accused journalists of violating curfew and told them they had been ordered to oust journalists from the danger zone, but an army major said it had been a misunderstanding, adding there were no orders to stop media coverage, the channel reported.
Just a misunderstanding? Who can tell? More on this possibility later.

Meanwhile, on another front, according to the Daily Times, the resistance inside the mosque is now being led by major terrorists:

‘Eight top terrorists inside Lal Masjid’
ISLAMABAD: Eight “high value terrorists” wanted by Pakistan and other countries are holed up inside Lal Masjid, while another was killed by security forces in the ongoing operation, Religious Affairs Minister Ejaz ul Haq said on Sunday.

“Nine suspected terrorists said to be far more dangerous and harmful than Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives were hiding inside the mosque compound,” Haq told a press conference here. He refused to reveal the identities of these militants.

He said that security forces killed one of these suspected terrorists inside Lal Masjid on the second day of the ongoing operation. He was the mastermind of the failed suicide attack on Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz in Attock in 2005, he said.

Haq said that the militants and not Abdul Rashid Ghazi, Lal Masjid’s deputy chief cleric, were controlling the mosque. “The militants are holding children and Ghazi hostage,” he said.

AFP adds: The hardcore militants inside include two commanders from the banned Harkatul-Jihad-e-Islami, security officials said.

“We believe there are militants from Harkatul-Jihad-e-Islami, which was involved in the [Daniel] Pearl murder. Based on intelligence we suspect that two commanders from the group are in there,” one senior official told AFP. “They have taken control and they are putting up fierce resistance.” The information was based on “intercepts” and other intelligence, the officials said.

A source inside the mosque said there was a “lot of tension among the various groups inside the compound on how to conduct the fight”.
Is this true? If so, why are they publicizing it now? And whether it's true or not, is it an attempt to establish some "political cover"?

Why would they do that? Hmmm.

China's Xinhua (and others), citing Pakistani television, reported that President General Musharraf had given the order for a "final operation", but the report was quickly denied.

Was this the short flight of a trial balloon?

Musharraf OKs final operation against Lal Masjid militants
ISLAMABAD, July 8 (Xinhua) -- Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf gave the go ahead decision for the final operation against defiant Lal Masjid militants on Sunday night, a private TV channel DAWN NEWS reported Sunday.

The decision was made at a top-level meeting, DAWN NEWS said.

Journalists who were rendered freedom to make their presence near the Lal Masjid have been expelled from the site. The security forces have started a search operation in the curfew areas, according to DAWN NEWS.

The President also announced that the government would not provide a safe passage for Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the deputy chief of the mosque who is leading the resistance.

Minister for Religious Affairs Ijaz ul Haq said Sunday hardcore terrorists involved in various national and international terrorists acts have taken control of the mosque and they are bullying the children and women in the mosque with death threats, a private TV channel Geo reported.

A senior religious leader on Sunday warned that suicide attacks could prevail in the country if the government demolish the girl seminary "Jamia Hafsa," a building in the Lal Masjid compound where many girl students were taken hostages.
And was it all just a big misunderstanding with Dawn TV, or did they take that balloon down as soon as word of it got out?

In any case, according to the Daily Times, the State Information Minister is singing a very different tune:

‘No full-scale operation approved’
LAHORE: State Information Minister Tariq Azim denied media reports that President Musharraf had approved a final operation against Lal Masjid, reported Geo news.

Briefing the media on Sunday, Azim said that the government would not compromise with Maulana Abdul Rasheed Ghazi and the time for negotiations had passed. He said that Ghazi would have to decide his own fate.

“It depends on Ghazi whether he prefers to surrender or gets killed,” Azim said.

ISPR Director General Maj Gen Waheed Arshad said he had no information regarding a final offensive against Lal Masjid, though he did not deny it either.

President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz discussed the Lal Masjid operation via telephone. Aziz discussed the strategy against the Lal Masjid administration. Musharraf reiterated the government wanted minimum loss of life.
At the Dawn [daily paper] website, there's nary a mention of any "final operation". Ahmed Hassan typifies the tone there:

Siege to continue till hostages freed: PM
ISLAMABAD, July 7: Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz has said that the siege of the Lal Masjid-Jamia Hafsa complex will continue till the children made hostage by the militants are freed.

Minister of State for Information Tariq Azeem Khan said the government’s decision to continue with the status quo was based on its concern for human lives. He brushed aside assertions that the final showdown had been delayed to overshadow the opposition’s Multi-Party Conference in London.

In reply to a question, he said the government was determined to ensure that the operation was not initiated as long as a single child or female student remained hostage.

Prime Minister Aziz said: “The government wants to resolve the issue promptly but with minimum loss of life.” He said the operation was delayed to protect lives of women and children who had been made hostage by extremists.

The Prime Minister expressed concern over reports that women and children had been detained and made hostage by the extremists inside Jamia Hafsa.

He said the government would facilitate the release and return of hostages and every possible step would be taken to facilitate the parents.

He said the extremists inside Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa were only serving the cause of those who want to spoil the image of Islam.
Who might want to spoil the image of Islam? Any false flag possibilities come to mind? Hmmm.

India's NDTV says a change of government tactics may be in the cards, but doesn't claim to know anything specific:

Lal Masjid: Pak govt may change strategy
Islamabad: Monday, July 9, 2007 -- Intelligence officials in Pakistan have been quoted as saying that hardcore militants with suicide jackets and armed with a host of weapons, including rocket launchers have taken position in the Lal Masjid.

Pakistan's Deputy Information Minister told agencies that the government may rethink its strategy for dealing with the week-long siege of Lal Masjid after a top Army commando was killed by gunmen on Sunday.

The mosque's deputy leader, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, has said he and his followers would commit suicide rather than surrender.

Water and power to the mosque have been cut off in the mosque for several days now and food is said to be getting scarce.
How scarce? Some reports indicate they have enough food inside the mosque to last for a month. What if this crisis drags on for a month? That would turn plenty of attention away from the the Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry story, wouldn't it?

And is this timing just a bit too convenient? Not according to James Rupert at Newsday, who says:

Pakistanis see a conspiracy in siege
It seems a simple drama: the moderate President Pervez Musharraf sending troops to shut down the radical mosque that has brought violence to Pakistan's capital.

But Islamabad's Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, has championed Islamic jihadism for years with support and tolerance from the army now besieging it, say Pakistani scholars and analysts. At the least, they say, the crisis is "blowback" from years of discreet support by military intelligence agencies for Lal Masjid's militants.

Many Pakistanis go farther, saying the drama is largely staged by "the agencies," as they are called here. Suggesting just that, Najam Sethi, one of the country's most distinguished journalists, wrote in the weekly Friday Times that "it is curious that the Lal Masjid affair has hogged the media precisely when [a] more substantive national issue" -- Musharraf's attempt to oust the country's chief justice and manipulate the Supreme Court -- has been hurting him politically.

Such conspiracy theories get serious consideration here because the military has made a habit of political manipulation.
That's not all James Rupert has to say; the remainder of his column is well worth reading. Here are a few more choice cuts:
The military has used jihad, or Islamic holy war, as a foreign policy weapon [...] Through its vast intelligence agencies, the military has quietly backed mosques, madrassas (religious schools), religious charities and guerrilla groups that promoted such "jihads."

For years, Pakistanis have widely understood and applauded the military's support for jihadists in Kashmir and Afghanistan. More controversial is agencies such as Military Intelligence and the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) using their militant networks to manipulate domestic politics.

ISI and the other agencies got into the jihad business in a big way in the 1980s under the authoritarian Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq. They managed the massive, CIA-funded program to train and arm the Afghan mujahideen fighting Soviet occupation. And they spawned violent groups among Pakistan's majority Sunni sect to attack the newly assertive Shia minority.

Lal Masjid, founded by a mullah named Muhammad Abdullah, was a strong supporter of those government-favored "jihads," preaching on their behalf and helping them recruit fighters.

The intelligence agencies have been confident they would always be able to control the radical institutions they have built, say Haqqani, Abbas and others. But when the army's policies demanded restraint, the agencies have had trouble reining in the radicals.

This has bedeviled President Musharraf since the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. Pushed by the United States to clamp down on al-Qaida and other militant Islamic groups, Musharraf has had his army slash its longtime support for jihadist guerrillas and religious leaders.

But militants fired by a holy, eternal cause don't surrender it willingly to the momentary political needs of a government.
Militant or not, holy or not, nobody with an eternal cause surrenders willingly to momentary needs of anybody or anything.

So I really don't expect a peaceful settlement, or a lasting one.

There's more on the government conspiracy angle at The News:

Ulema demand body to probe mosque issue
LAHORE: Religious leaders on Saturday cast serious doubts over the arrest of Maulana Abdul Aziz in Burqa, terming it a "drama" like the televised arrest of late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from a ditch.

Briefing the media after a meeting of religious scholars and Madaris representatives of Lahore, Pir Saifullah Khalid, the head of Jamia Mansoorul Islamia, and Maulana Abdul Rauf Farooqi said the meeting had condemned the mishandling of the whole affair and distorting facts for political gains of the military government.

They said the one-sided official propaganda should be stopped and the media be allowed to verify facts [...] They said the meeting demanded setting up of a commission to probe why the Lal Masjid issue was allowed to linger on for months [...] The meeting also called for an immediate end to the military operation and allowing a safe passage to Lal Masjid inmates besides stopping maltreatment and humiliation of the arrested people.

The meeting was attended by over 100 religious scholars and administrators of seminaries of Lahore.
The aftershocks from this crisis -- fabricated or not -- have the potential to reverberate for a very long time -- unless a peaceful settlement can be reached, in which case the government -- especially President General Musharraf -- would be strengthened at a crucial time.

As we go to net, the most recent reports indicate that both sides may now be willing to negotiate. If it's true, it would be a significant change from the "martyrdom for the revolution" stance taken by Ghazi in response to the "surrender or die" ultimatum delivered by Musharraf on Saturday. Of course, it could also be another misunderstanding, or another trial balloon.

We can only wait and find out. The same is true of course for the families of those inside. But their waiting -- in a makeshift camp, in the heart of the capital, behind rolls of barbed wire -- is infinitely more painful than ours.


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