The government's negotiating team announced on Sunday that it has reached an agreement with the proscribed Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) but did not divulge any further details, with Mufti Muneebur Rehman saying the specifics will come to light at an "appropriate time".
The agreement comes after almost two weeks of clashes that left at least seven policemen dead and scores injured on both sides.
The proscribed group began the march, calling for the release of its incarcerated leader, Saad Rizvi, and the expulsion of France's ambassador over the publication of caricatures depicting the Holy Prophet (PBUH) in a French satirical magazine.
The situation in Wazirabad, where the TLP marchers have camped out, remains unchanged at the moment, with blockades of roads and cellular services continuing. The protesters have started packing up their belongings, but have been told not to move until they are given the green light by the TLP's leadership in Islamabad, according to our correspondent in Gujranwala.
Sajid Saifi, a TLP spokesman, told Reuters that supporters were ready to pack up but were awaiting instructions from the party's leadership. He said he hoped TLP leader Saad Rizvi and all the activists arrested in recent days would be released soon.
Sunday's announcement was made at a press conference held in Islamabad featuring Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser, MNA Ali Mohammad Khan, Mufti Muneeb as well as TLP members Mufti Ghulam Abbas Faizi and Mufti Mohammad Ameer.
"The government of Pakistan and the TLP had a detailed discussion under an environment of mutual trust, and an agreement has been reached between the two sides," Mufti Muneeb said. "The agreement was reached after sense prevailed over aggression, rationality prevailed over sentiments, and all the participants demonstrated patience.
"I want to urge the entire nation that this is not the victory of any individual, but it is the victory of Islam, patriotism, and protection of human lives.
"I want to tell the nation that these dialogues were never not held under any duress. They were held in a serious, responsible and independent environment, [in which] everyone made their contribution. Everyone deserves to be thanked for it."
The Mufti did not give any specific details of the agreement, simply saying that they will be shared at an "appropriate time".
The Mufti said that the "positive impact" of the agreement will be seen in the coming week, adding: "The participants of the agreement entered the accord in the best interest of the country and its people. This agreement was reached before any untoward incident. This is the news for the entire nation, and the national media should portray it in a positive manner."
The Mufti thanked all the parties involved for their help in striking the agreement.
"I am thankful to the prime minister for empowering the committee and trusting it, and also to the committee for working dedicatedly to resolve this matter," he said. "Similarly, the TLP demonstrated the same behaviour."
"The agreement was also backed by TLP chief Hafiz Saad Hussain Rizvi," he added.
He said that a committee had been formed to oversee the matter. "State Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Muhammad Khan will be its head, while Law Minister Punjab Raja Basharat will be a member of the committee," the Mufti said, adding that Mufti Ghulam Ghous Baghdadi and Engr. Hafeezullah Alavi will represent TLP in the committee.
We saw chaos and chose path of peace: FM Qureshi
Meanwhile, FM Qureshi thanked the ulemas for "saving the country from a test" and explained why the government chose to negotiate rather than use force.
"On Friday when I returned from Tehran, the NSC meeting was called," he recalled. "The meeting, after detailed deliberations, decided that talks will be preferred and focus will be to resolve this issue with sensibility.
"We saw the loss of lives, property, chaos at hospitals, difficulty in movement of people, fear of economic loss, and we chose the path of peace."
"In light of the PM's orders and keeping in view the nation's interest, we realise that powers who want to harm Pakistan could have benefited," Qureshi said, adding that there would be no question and answers session with the media personnel.
Rescheduling of press conference
According to a handout by the Press Information Department (PID), Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser and MNA Ali Mohammad Khan were to originally address the press conference alongside Mufti Muneeb at 11:15am.
However, the press conference was delayed, with foreign minister telling reporters at the PID that it would be held "shortly". The PID later announced that the press conference would be held at 3:15pm before revising the timing again to 2:45pm.
A day earlier, a new negotiating team — led by Qureshi and comprising Qaiser and Khan — met TLP leaders while Prime Minister Imran Khan met with senior clerics at his Banigala residence.
Talking to Dawn, a senior TLP leader said negotiations were the only way forward and everybody wanted a way out of the current situation, however, the behaviour of some cabinet members was irresponsible.
“Why did they brand us Indian agent; the whole nation wants to know who is getting money from the enemies,” the TLP official, speaking from hiding, said, adding that, “we have asked the government to change the negotiating team which does not insult us after the meeting.”
Meanwhile, the TLP acknowledged the meeting in a press statement, saying that a meeting with the government team was held in Rawalpindi. In its second release issued late in the night, the TLP agreed to abide by all assurances it had given the government, including stopping the march in Wazirabad.
The government had resumed talks with TLP, though this time the negotiating team primarily consisted of senior clerics from the Barelvi school of thought.
Despite taking all measures against the banned outfit’s protest march, the government decided to resume talks and brought senior leaders of the organisation, already in custody, to the federal capital in the early hours of Saturday morning.
According to sources in the TLP, Mufti Muneeb also met the outfit’s incarcerated leader Saad Rizvi in Islamabad.
Following these renewed efforts, cabinet members also softened their tone, with Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry and Adviser to the Prime Minister on Religious Harmony and Middle East Hafiz Tahir Ashrafi restrained from issuing statements against the banned outfit.
Official sources said Saad Rizvi and three senior members of the TLP ‘Shura’ — Maulana Shafiq Amini, Engineer Hafezullah and Pir Inayatul Haq — were brought to Islamabad from Lahore for direct negotiations.
TLP continues sit-in in Wazirabad for third day
Meanwhile, TLP workers continued their sit-in at Wazirabad for a third straight day on Sunday. The protesters were camped out at Allah Wala Chowk.
Internet and train services remain suspended in Gujranwala due to the protest, while a heavy police contingent has been deployed at the Chenab Toll Plaza.
About 500 metres from the Chenab toll plaza, the Punjab Rangers have marked a 'red line', and put up a notice nearby warning the protesters not to breach the line or face consequences.
The TLP had launched the latest round of protests in Lahore on the 12th of Rabiul Awwal, primarily to exert pressure on the Punjab government for the release of its chief, Hafiz Saad Hussain Rizvi, the son of its late founder Khadim Rizvi. The younger Rizvi has been kept in detention by the Punjab government since April 12 for “maintenance of public order".
However, TLP leader Pir Ajmal Qadri had later said the purpose of the move was "respect for the Holy Prophet (PBUH)", while also demanding Rizvi's release.
It had also announced to march on Islamabad, prompting the government to block the routes leading to the capital.