Two kidnapped policemen at the heart of a standoff in Islamabad between radical Islamic clerics and Pakistani military forces are set to be released, according to news reports.
ABC Radio Australia writes that the chief of Islamabad's Lal Masjid mosque, or Red Mosque, said that the clerics would soon release the Pakistani policemen. Bloomberg reports that Pakistani officials said that the policemen have already been freed. The pair, along with two other policemen released earlier, have been held at the mosque since Friday, when they were seized by students from a madrassah, or religious school.
"The Red Mosque clerics have released all the policemen they had taken hostage from outside their seminaries," Tariq Azeem, the junior minister for information and broadcasting, said in a telephone interview today. "There was no need for use of force."
Security forces were withdrawn from around the mosque known as the Lal Masjid, he said. Students and clerics had held two police officers at the seminary since May 18.
The policemen's release defuses a potentially violent situation, as the mosque had been facing a raid by Pakistani forces, reports Indian broadcaster New Dehli Television Limited. Some 10,000 troops had taken positions around the mosque in preparation to free the policemen, NDTV writes, but Pakistan decided to hold off on using force, due to the high likelihood of bloodshed.
Voice of America reports that the four policemen were seized Friday from the main road outside the Lal Masjid mosque, according to Interior Ministry officials. The mosque's clerics accuse the officers of performing undercover surveillance there, in violation of a previous agreement between the mosque and the government that police would avoid the area. Voice of America notes that the mosque's leaders have been at odds with the government for several months.
Its top clerics have vowed to impose Taleban-style Sharia law in the capital and have threatened massive suicide bomb attacks if the government tries to interfere.
Students from the mosque's religious seminaries swept through one of Islamabad's main market areas last month, warning shop owners against selling music or movies.
Hundreds of students have also been occupying a nearby children's library since January to protest government efforts to demolish several mosques illegally built on government property.
The clerics released two of the four kidnapped policemen Saturday, in exchange for the release from police custody of four seminary students and a former member of Pakistan's intelligence agency, ISI, according to Pakistan's DAWN newspaper. The five were arrested last month for setting fire to a music store. The DAWN notes that the five have not yet been released due to the lack of payment of bond, but that the two policemen were released by the clerics anyway.
The BBC reports that another trio of policemen were briefly kidnapped on Monday afternoon in Islamabad by members of a madrassah linked to the Red Mosque. They were released after a few hours, however.
The BBC's correspondent says that the two Red Mosque-associated kidnappings are "another serious challenge to President [Pervez] Musharraf's authority." But others say that the ongoing conflict between the mosque's clerics and Mr. Musharraf are actually a boost to Musharraf's regime by distracting the Pakistani public from the ongoing controversy over his ouster of Pakistani Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammed Chaudhry in March. In a commentary printed in Pakistan's Daily Times, security firm Stratfor suggests that Musharraf is intentionally playing up the mosque conflict to solidify support for his government.
Stratfor writes, "However, this standoff has been going on since February – so why opt for an iron-hand approach now? The answer has to do with the much larger – stemming from the March 9 suspension of Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry – which is growing with the passage of time. By moving to resolve the standoff with the militant mullahs in Islamabad, the government could divert attention from the legal crisis, giving itself a breather. Moreover, the government is hoping the move will go over well with the public, because there is broad public support for cracking down against the Talibanising forces."
The Daily Times also reports that members of Musharraf's political opposition go even further, accusing Musharraf and the mosque clerics of being in cahoots and manufacturing the issue. "It's a drama staged by the government and clerics to divert people’s attention from the real national issues including the judicial crisis," said Khawaja Muhammad Asif of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz.
The New York Times reports, however, that members of Musharraf's own party are advocating that he reconcile with Mr. Chaudhry, as well as his political opposition.
"There are two ways he can go: retreat to the bunker or stop, pause, review, reflect and reverse course," said one ruling party member who did not want to be identified. "He has to show leadership, magnanimity, and be loyal to the broader objective. The important thing is Pakistan's future."