ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – The chief cleric of a radical Islamic mosque and seminary Sunday threatened holy war against the government if authorities use force to free two police officers being held captive by students.
Islamabad police chief Chaudhry Iftikhar Ahmed warned the students that the government was considering all options, including the use of force, to free the officers.
"We would like that ... they release the policemen so that the government does not have to make use of force," Ahmed said. "We are not now negotiating anything with them. We are giving them time. Hopefully, some better sense prevails."
Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema said later the government wants to peacefully resolve the standoff through negotiations. Using force was a "last option," he said.
Abdul Rashid Ghazi, a cleric at the mosque, said the officers were detained because they were outside the seminary despite an agreement that police would not be deployed there. He said the officers would be freed only in exchange for nine students in government custody. Four officers were initially abducted and two were released Saturday.
"Imam (head) of the mosque Maulana Abdul Aziz has declared that if the government uses force we will wage jihad," Ghazi said.
"We will not retreat. We will sacrifice our lives," Aziz said over mosque loudspeakers amid chants by his supporters.
Pakistan's Dawn newspaper reported that the release of the two officers Saturday was in return for the freedom of four students who had been arrested for burning a shop selling music and movies in a village near Islamabad.
Ahmed denied the report, saying an anti-terrorism court had ordered the students be freed on bail and their release was unrelated to the kidnappings.
Aziz said 200 students from another seminary affiliated with the mosque have been arrested. Cheema said several people were "intercepted" to stop them from going to the mosque but were expected to be freed later. Cheema did not say how many people were detained.
The Red Mosque's hardline clerics — long alleged to have ties with militants, including the Taliban militia — have started a Taliban-style anti-vice campaign in defiance of state authority in the relatively liberal Pakistani capital.
They have warned nearby video and music shop owners to close their businesses and abducted a woman and her relatives for allegedly running a brothel, forcing her to make a public confession.
The clerics last month demanded Tourism Minister Nilofar Bakhtiar be fired for hugging a foreign man, saying the official committed a "great sin." They made their demand after photos appeared in the Pakistani media showing her being helped by a male instructor during a charity parachute jump in France to help victims of the devastating 2005 earthquake in Pakistan.
Bakhtiar rejected the Taliban-style edict, or fatwa, and said her family and friends were concerned for her safety.