ISLAMABAD, July 9: The government on Monday agreed to allow ‘safe passage’ to Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi and his family to end the eight-day standoff. In a late-night decision, President Gen Pervez Musharraf was reported to have asked the ulema committee and PML president Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain to offer safe passage to the cleric, who is holding hundreds of students hostage in the mosque-madressah complex.

It is expected that Abdul Rashid Ghazi and his elder brother Maulana Abdul Aziz, who was arrested while trying to escape wearing a burqa, will be sent to their ancestral village Rojan in Rajanpur district along with their families.

The PML chief who had left the Ulema at the ‘surrender point’ near the Lal Masjid in the evening, went to the president and returned with Interior Secretary Syed Kamal Shah and Director-General ISPR Maj-Gen Waheed Arshad and finalised modalities with the ulema delegation of providing safe passage to the clerics.

A source said Ghazi had been given four options, including safe passage, and it is learnt that he had agreed to go to his village along with his family.

The whole day, the hardline cleric refused to come out of his fortress for talks with the ulema and the PML chief and a time came when Chaudhry Shujaat, who had waited for hours outside the mosque, left the place frustrated and went straight to President Musharraf to report to him about the outcome of his efforts.

Information Minister Muhammad Ali Durrani would just say that talks were still in progress. He, however, said that the government would do nothing that was against the law.

The ulema told reporters that there was “no deadlock in talks” and they were hopeful about a peaceful outcome. They said they would meet President Musharraf on Tuesday to discuss the issue.

Meanwhile, the intensity of crossfire between security forces and militants remained low on Monday as intense efforts to end the standoff continued throughout the day.

The government’s move to hold talks with the Lal Masjid cleric is considered a shift from its rigid stance that there would be no talks and the Lal Masjid cleric should surrender unconditionally.

It appeared that the government had agreed to meet all demands of the cleric but it was still uncertain if it was a strategic move or the government had turned defensive because of the strong resistance put up by the militants.

President Gen Pervez Musharraf on Monday convened a meeting and directed the authorities concerned to strive for a ‘peaceful solution’ to save the lives of hundreds of students in the mosque.

Efforts to initiate talks with Maulana Ghazi remained deadlocked for almost the entire day as a delegation of ulema of Wafaqul Madaris could not meet Maulana Ghazi. Renowned philanthropist and head of the Edhi Foundation Abdul Sattar Edhi and his wife Bilqees Edhi had also gone with the delegation.

The delegation included the Wafaqul Madaris president, Maulana Saleemullah, secretary Maulana Hanif Jalandhry, Maulana Rafi Usmani, Maulana Hakim Mazhar, Zahidur Rashidi and Dr Sikandar.

Members of the delegation first called on Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and attended a meeting in the Prime Minister’s Secretariat.

The prime minister allowed the PML chief and the ulema to hold talks with the hardline cleric to secure the release of children and women being held hostage by the militants.

After arriving at the media centre set up near the Lal Masjid, Chaudhry Shujaat said: “We want to resume talks with Maulana Ghazi from the point where they were suspended.”

The delegation went close to the Lal Masjid from where Chaudhry Shujaat used a megaphone and asked Maulana Ghazi to come outside the complex for talks and assured him that he would not be humiliated or killed.

An additional sessions judge read out the orders of the Supreme Court on megaphone providing assurance to Maulana Ghazi.

The delegation also sent a van installed with a mobile telephone to Maulana Ghazi. An unidentified man came out of the mosque to receive the telephone.

The delegation contacted Lal Masjid’s in-charge and again invited him for talks. However, Maulana Ghazi refused to leave the complex and instead invited the delegation inside the mosque.

Members of the delegation were reluctant to go inside, fearing that they could be held hostage by the militants.

Meanwhile, the prime minister told reporters that the ulema delegation had been advised not to go inside the mosque because they could be held hostage like the six parents who had gone inside the complex two days ago to take custody of their children.

“It was decided that the delegation would first talk to Maulana Ghazi over megaphone and discuss the terms of engagement,” the PM said.

He said there were reports that some terrorists wanted by the authorities were among the militants in the mosque.

The prime minister said the assistance of two Pakistani hostage negotiators who were trained by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) would be sought and they would negotiate on behalf of the government.

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