Pakistan might release Red Mosque cleric in peace deal

The Red Mosque.
The Red Mosque. Jonathan S. Landay / MCT

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The Pakistani government is considering freeing another radical cleric in another controversial "peace" move.

According to local media reports Thursday, the authorities are negotiating the release of Abdul Aziz, formerly the prayer leader at the notorious Red Mosque in Islamabad. Pakistani security forces laid siege to the Red Mosque last summer, which resulted in a bloody storming of the building. It's estimated that more than 100 people died.

Aziz had gathered hundreds of fanatical men and women at the mosque in central Islamabad along with heavy weaponry. During the siege, he was caught sneaking out dressed in an all-enveloping burqa, trying to pass himself off as a woman. His brother, Abdul Rashid, another extremist preacher, was killed in the fighting.

Fazlur Rehman, the leader of the hard-line Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party, which is considered close to the Taliban, is thought to be leading negotiations with the Ministry of Interior on behalf of Aziz. Rehman's party is part of the new ruling coalition in Pakistan, after February's elections.

Many in Pakistan resent the storming of the mosque, where folklore contends that several hundred women and children died, their bodies buried in secret mass graves.

Thursday's move followed two other contentious peace initiatives that the Pakistani government unveiled this week.

It released Sufi Muhammed, a cleric who took hundreds of young men to fight the U.S. in Afghanistan shortly after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. That drew sharp criticism from Washington.

The government also is negotiating a new peace deal in militant-controlled South Waziristan, in a move that could affect NATO troops in Afghanistan. The last such deal, three years ago, led to a spike in attacks in Afghanistan launched from Waziristan.

There were further signs Thursday that the South Waziristan peace initiative was having an impact. A cease-fire was proclaimed by Islamic militants, who are led by warlord Baitullah Mehsud and his Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan group. The Pakistan army, however, denied a claim by the militants that security forces already were pulling out of South Waziristan.

"All members of Tehreek-i-Taliban are ordered by Baitullah Mehsud that a ban is imposed on provocative activities for the sake of peace," the organization said in a leaflet distributed in the South Waziristan region and nearby towns close to the Afghan border, according to the Reuters news agency.

Separately, there were reports of another U.S. missile strike on Pakistani soil, an incident that wouldn't aid efforts by the government to talk to militants. A report in The News, a Pakistani daily newspaper, said that 12 people were killed Wednesday in a NATO attack in Bajaur agency, one of the districts of Pakistan's tribal belt, which borders Afghanistan.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)