Deadlock in talks at besieged Pakistani mosque


Islamabad : A delegation of religious scholars and officials was late Monday trying to break a deadlock in negotiations with militants at a besieged Pakistani mosque in a bid to save the lives of women and children inside.

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The group, including seven scholars and two ministers, aided by two renowned social workers, reached the Lal Masjid to negotiate after the weeklong standoff.

The hardline cleric, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, had agreed to talk to the mediators, but refused to come out of the mosque for fear of being arrested or shot dead by a sniper.

Two cabinet ministers, Ijaz ul Haq and Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, declined to hold parleys inside the mosque as they feared they could be taken hostage.

However, both sides exchanged views on megaphones from a distance of 200 metres, with the mediators on a road heavily guarded by paramilitary troops, Rangers. Later, cell phones were used after the sides had exchanged telephone numbers.

The religious scholars insisted that entering the mosque was not risky, and said they were ready to guarantee that.

Earlier, President Pervez Musharraf approved talks with the mosque extremists.

"Every effort should be made to ensure the release of those held up by the militants inside the mosque, without bloodshed," Aaj news channel quoted him as saying at a high level meeting.

The delegation has several proposals for Ghazi, including his exile or house arrest in return for his surrender, which the cleric has refused so far saying he would rather die.

Analysts believe the new strategy is being devised as a high number of casualties in a possible storm operation could cause the government to lose the public support it has won through its firm stand against extremism.

Pakistan's Supreme Court Monday told the government that the religious scholars should be allowed to go to the besieged mosque to negotiate with the militants.

The court's intervention to overrule executive power, unique to the Pakistani judicial system, came amid public concern for those inside the compound and the neighbours suffering under the siege and curfew.

Justice Mohammed Nawaz Abbasi, who along with Justice Faqir Mohammed Khokhar was appointed to a panel of judges, said the miseries inflicted on the residents near the mosque for the last seven days, mainly due to curfew, violated the constitution.

"Extra-judicial killings of this nature cannot be tolerated," he said as he summoned top home ministry officials, civil administration officials and security forces to the court.

The security operation was launched after extremist students attacked a police check post last Tuesday, during a five-month standoff with authorities in their bid to enforce a Taliban-style way of life in Pakistan.