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A view of Parliament House. — File Photo

ISLAMABAD: As the role of security agencies was repeatedly called into question in parliament over Shia massacre in Quetta, the government and opposition agreed on Tuesday to call a joint session of the National Assembly and Senate to hear from the heads of these agencies.

During debates in both houses for the second day running, lawmakers blamed perceived negligence or failures of the agencies for the second massacre of Hazara Shias in the Balochistan capital in just 40 days and called for accountability.

But it was in the National Assembly, which saw two separate token walkouts over the issue, that a joint session was formally proposed by the opposition PML-N, to which the ruling PPP’s chief whip and Religious Affairs Minister Khursheed Ahmed Shah agreed, saying such a meeting, possibly in camera, could be held some time next week.

In calling for the joint session, Khwaja Mohammad Asif, a ranking PML-N lawmaker, demanded that “all institutions responsible for security” — including secret agencies, the paramilitary Frontier Corps operating in Balochistan and police — should be called “so the representatives of 180 million people (of Pakistan) ask them why the nation is so unsafe”.

Wasim Akhtar of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) endorsed the PML-N proposal on behalf of his party, which quit the government only last week over another issue concerning law and order in Karachi, before the PPP chief whip agreed to hold such a sitting in camera, saying he would convey “the sense of the house” to Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf and that “Insha-Allah the session would be held some time next week”.

But a veteran PPP member, Chaudhry Abdul Ghafoor, who was chairing the house, proposed that the joint session be open in light of the past experience when proceedings of similar sessions could not remain secret.

The development, following separate walkouts by the MQM and the PML-N, came after the prime minister assured the house on the first day of the likely last session of its five-year term on Monday that the government would “go to any possible extent” against the perpetrators of Saturday’s suicide bombing in a Hazara community residential area of Quetta that killed about 90 people, 40 days after a suicide attack targeted Hazaras in the same city, killing about 100.

During the debate on the bombing, claimed by the banned Lashkar-i-Jhangvi group, Himayatullah Mayar of the government-allied Awami National Party (ANP) had called for summoning heads of military and security agencies to parliament to explain their position.

But he opposed the Hazara community’s demand to hand over Quetta to the army, saying such a course could encourage “voices tomorrow” that the whole country be handed over to the army.

But PML-N’s Lt-Gen (retd) Abdul Qadir Baloch said heavens would not fall if troops were called out in Quetta for a couple of months to satisfy the Hazara community.

However, Khawaja Asif, who was the main PML-N and opposition speaker on the day, did not suggest an army takeover of Quetta over the massacre, which he said had made heads of all Pakistanis hang in shame and of parliamentarians before the large portrait over the speaker’s chair of Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who himself belonged to the Shia community.

MQM’s Wasim Akhtar, who termed the result of previous in-camera explanations of military forces to parliament “zero”, said this time “we should order them to go and kill Lashkar-i-Jhangvi”.

Failure or deliberate negligence In the Senate, lawmakers across the political divide blasted security and intelligence agencies for their failure to pre-empt terrorism and questioned allocation of huge budgets for them.

Speaking on an adjournment motion moved by MQM’s Col (retd) Tahir Hussain Mashhadi, opposition members warned against a spread of sectarianism all over the country if effective measures were not taken immediately.

A key government senator also joined his voice with those who had earlier suspected involvement of some elements within the agencies and security apparatus in the ongoing violence.

“Today, what is regarded as intelligence failure might be interpreted tomorrow as deliberate negligence,” said PPP’s Senator Farhatullah Babar who is also the spokesman for President Asif Ali Zardari.

Most of the senators asked Chairman Nayyar Hussain Bokhari to call federal secretaries for interior and defence to explain the failure of the intelligence agencies which, some noted, could not spot about 1,000kg of explosives transported in a vehicle on Saturday to an area already under security cover.

The members were of the view that since the National Assembly was about to complete its term in a few weeks after which there would be no interior or defence minister of the present government, the secretaries must be summoned before the Senate which would remain intact even after the dissolution of the lower house of parliament.

Mr Babar drew the attention of the house to “the mysterious escape” of two dangerous and condemned militants of a banned outfit from “the highly secured and improvised prison in the Quetta cantonment” on the night of Jan 18, 2008.

He said the defence and interior officials should also be asked as to how these prisoners managed to escape and why the guards who were actually on duty had been replaced all of a sudden with some new ones the same night.

The PPP senator said the two activists, Usman Kurd and Daud Buledi, sentenced to death by an anti-terrorism court in November 2003, had been kept in an improvised prison in Quetta’s cantonment area.

At a time when transition from dictatorship to democracy was taking place, these two prisoners escaped from the prison and then the country witnessed an increase in sectarian-related incidents during the civilian rule, he said. “Beyond this, I can’t be more explicit,” he said, amid desk-thumping by house members.

Senator Hasil Bizenjo of the National Party alleged that some 550 Baloch people had been kidnapped and killed by security agencies during the past 30 months.

He termed the Quetta carnage part of an international conspiracy, saying the same day Shias had been killed in blasts in Baghdad and Damascus as well.

Haji Adeel of the ANP said parliament would also not remain safe if steps were not taken to improve the situation.

He regretted that when political parties showed their readiness for dialogue with the militants, they responded with suicide attacks on a convoy of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa chief minister and on the office of the Khyber Agency political agent in Peshawar.

The ANP senator said there had been demands for a tough military operation against the terrorists from three provinces and Fata but there had been no such call coming from Punjab. “Our army will not come into action unless such a call also comes from Punjab which has 64 per cent of the country’s population,” he said.

He said Sri Lanka had succeeded in tackling the terrorism issue with the cooperation of Pakistan’s army and security agencies but Pakistan itself was unable to check the menace. Abdul Ghafoor Haideri of the JUI-F criticised those who bracketed the mainstream religious parties with the militants, saying his party itself had been a victim of terrorism.

He opposed the demand about Quetta handover, saying the army was already present in Swat and Fata but there had been no peace there.

He said the intelligence agencies and the military were helpless because they could not annoy the US which was the main source of terrorism in the country.

Leader of Opposition Ishaq Dar asked the chairman to issue directive to the government to arrange an in-camera sitting of the house to discuss the security-related issues in the light of a statement of Interior Minister Rehman Malik that the country was facing a threat of disintegration.

The chairman asked the leader of the house to consult the prime minister and suggest a date for the in-camera session.

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