May 22, 2007

Pakistan seminary students held (The Lal Masjid Issue)

Heightened tension over the standoff between the religious students and the capital administration continued on Monday when another religious school � Jamia Faridia � briefly held hostage three policemen.

The Station House Officer (SHO) of the Kohsar Police Station was, however, lucky enough to manage his escape.Jamia Faridia is a branch of Lal Masjid, which is at the centre of a row with the administration over the forcible occupation of the Children�s Library by the female students of the Jamia Hafsa, another subsidiary of the mosque, and still holding two out of the four policemen hostage on the pretext that the police and other law-enforcement agencies have arrested their students.

On Monday, four cops � SHO Kohsar Police Station Haq Nawaz, SI Muhammad Islam, ASI Muhammad Sharif and Constable Afrasiab � were on a patrol in E-7 at about 5pm when a baton-wielding group of local Taliban intercepted and kidnapped them after thrashing them badly. The SHO, however, managed to flee.

Subsequently, thousands of religious students gathered on the main road leading to the Jamia Faridia and vent anger against the government for detaining the seminary students. After the deployment of police contingents and Punjab Constabulary in the area, SDPO/ASP Kamran Adil held negotiations with the Jamia Faridia administration and secured the release of the kidnapped police officers after three hours.

The deputy commissioner Islamabad issued the following press note at the end of the episode: �Today at about 5.15pm, three policemen in the vicinity of Jamia Faridia were taken hostage by the students of the seminary. Immediately, the ASP (City) and the SHO Kohsar contacted the students of Jamia Faridia for their release. However, no breakthrough could be achieved and they returned without the hostages.

Later, the deputy commissioner and the SSP Islamabad also reached the site. The deputy commissioner immediately directed that preparations to meet any contingency by the ICT Police be ensured. Consequently, contingents of the ICT Police as well as those from the Rangers started assembling in the vicinity. The ADC(G) along with the AC and the magistrate also arrived at the site. Simultaneously, the deputy commissioner also established contact with the management of E-7 Madrassa and conveyed that the three hostages from ICT Police should be released unconditionally otherwise available legal course would be adopted. On this, the management of Madrassa handed over the hostages along with their weapons to the deputy commissioner Islamabad at about 7.45pm�.

AFP adds: The policemen who were held for a short time on Monday were released after the authorities warned the students that direct action would be taken to rescue the hostages, Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao told a private TV channel.

Sherpao said the government was seeking a quick resolution to the crisis. �We will apply all pressures to secure the release of the two policemen,� he said. �We are in contact with the administration of the mosque. We have avoided any operation because of the presence of a large number of women there.�

�We don�t want bloodshed,� he added. Large numbers of police, including commandos, had gathered near the Jamia Faridia seminary, a sister organisation of Jamia Hafsa. The authorities on Monday denied planning to storm the mosque to rescue the two police hostages, who were taken on Friday.

The capital authorities have detained about 40 religious students over the hostage-taking standoff, officials said Monday. The men were arrested Sunday as they tried to go to the mosque, where students are locked in a three-day confrontation with armed security forces, government spokesman Brigadier Javed Cheema said.

�The 40 or so arrests that have been made were of potential troublemakers,� Cheema told AFP. �Security has been beefed up at entry and exit points of the capital to make sure that unwanted people do not enter.� Islamabad police chief Iftikhar Ahmed Chaudhry refused to rule out a raid on the mosque. �All options are open and these options are being considered,� he said.

The mosque deputy chief, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, however said, �We fear that the authorities may carry out the operation in the next couple of days.� �The remaining two policemen are still in the custody of our students and will be freed only after the government releases our students as per the understanding reached between us and the local authorities,� he said.

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