ISLAMABAD, July 12: President Gen Pervez Musharraf on Thursday defended the Lal Masjid operation and declared that no mosque or seminary would be allowed to be misused like Jamia Hafsa.

“This is our resolve. I appeal to the moderate forces and ulema of the Wafaqul Madaris to support the government’s efforts to deal with terrorism and religious extremism,” he said in an address on television and radio.

He said that after the discovery of links between the Lal Masjid militants and radical elements in the NWFP and tribal areas, the federal government had decided to re-organise police, Levies, Khasadar, Frontier Corps and Frontier Constabulary, making them formidable organisations capable of dealing with militants.

“We have already provided tanks to some agencies and will further equip them with modern weapons to take on fanatics and militants.”

The president acknowledged that the operation had become controversial, but hastily said that establishing of the government’s writ had become inevitable. He said that NWFP’s five law-enforcement agencies would be given a special six-month training with “back-up support from the army” to deal with extremism and terrorism.

It was the president’s shortest speech, lasting only 33 minutes, in which he focussed on the military operation and the government’s strategy to root out militancy and religious extremism.

Regretting that the government had to take action against its own people which should not be termed anybody’s victory or defeat, he said: “In fact, today is the day of sorrow and … introspection to avoid the recurrence of such incidents.”

The president said that the operation was all the more regrettable because it was not an action against the country’s enemies but its own people, adding that the action had become unavoidable to re-establish the government’s writ.

The president apologised for the inconvenience caused by restrictions imposed on the residents of the F-6 sector, and said he was saddened by the deaths of some innocent people during the operation.

Blaming the Lal Masjid clerics for having forced the government’s hand, the president said that the crisis had started when they captured the children’s library, kidnapped policemen and set on fire government buildings. The issue assumed grave proportions when the militants kidnapped six Chinese citizens and killed a Rangers’ jawan.

The president said that the administration of Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa was not doing any service to Islam. Instead they had turned the buildings into forts, making them hubs of unlawful activities.

He said that while the mosque-madressah complex sheltered 5,000 students, it also harboured terrorists.

President Musharraf said that the kidnapping of Chinese citizens, a shameful act in itself, was aimed against a country which had always supported Pakistan, providing the country with necessary political, economic and military assistance.

“It was an embarrassing moment when the Chinese president telephoned me to seek protection for Chinese citizens working in Pakistan”, the president said.

Gen Musharraf said the government had shown utmost restraint and leniency for more than six months “but then there was a great pressure on me from Pakistanis to take action and establish the writ of the government that was repeatedly being challenged”. He said that because of delaying the operation, the government was even accused of colluding with the Lal Masjid militants and was blamed for exploiting the situation politically.

The president said that if the government wanted to use force, it could have done it on the first day, but it avoided taking extreme measures and exercised caution and acted wisely to save the lives of women and children held hostage. Because of the government’s utmost restraint, he said, the government had been able to save the lives of 3,300 people. “We tried (to find a peaceful solution) till the last day, calling upon the clerics and the militants to surrender. We tried to negotiate with the militants for more than 10 hours without any positive outcome. We were left with no other option but to start the operation at 3:45am on Tuesday. The government risked a lot by delaying the action, which should have started by midnight to minimise casualties.”

He paid rich tribute to PML president Chaudhry Shujaat Husain and ministers for interior, religious affairs information and the minister of state for information for their efforts to negotiate with the militants, along with ulema of the Wafaqul Madaris. He said members of the Council of Islamic Ideology were also brought in to defuse the situation. “On top of everything, we brought here the Imam of the Kaaba, who tried to convince the militants to give up their arms,” he said.

He said many people were asking why the crisis could not be resolved through negotiations. He said late Abdul Rashid Ghazi kept on piling demands. First he sought safe passage for himself and then demanded amnesty for others, including foreigners, for their actions spanning over the past six months. Then they killed Col Haroon (ul Islam) and kept dictating their terms, which were not acceptable to the government, and eventually the operation had to be initiated.

The president said that while it was difficult to eliminate terrorism and fanaticism from the country, the government was determined to take on such elements.

He said he was perhaps the first Pakistani leader who tried so hard to remove bad perceptions about madressahs by going to the United Nations, United States and the West. “I told them that these madressahs are the best NGOs,” he said, adding that the government had adopted a strategy with the help of Wafaqul Madaris to reform seminaries to enable them to educate poor children besides making them respectable citizens. “But they failed me and this led to a huge loss of human lives. I really feel sorry for it”.

He called for a pro-active role of Wafaqul Madaris to curb militancy to save Pakistan and Pakistanis from terrorism and extremism.

The president prayed to Allah to help Pakistanis become moderates so that their difficulties could end and they could lead prosperous and peaceful lives.

He also expressed sympathy with the families of the personnel of police, Rangers and the army’s Special Services Group (SSG), whose loved ones were martyred or injured during the operation.