Monday, January 28, 2008

Gunmen in Pakistan free School Hostages

On Monday, breaking news coverage of Pakistan focused on armed men taking 250 schoolchildren and teachers hostage after escaping from police in the Bannu district of the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) earlier today. However, later on Monday, news sources reported the gunmen surrendered to "tribal negotiators" in exchange for safe passage from the area. The Associated Press, AFP, and BBC News quoted statements made by Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema, who asserted on Pakistani television, "The criminals have surrendered to the jirga [tribal council] along with their weapons. No children have been hurt and all have been released." The AP emphasized in its report that Cheema described the gunmen as "criminals" rather than Islamic militants. The AP and the UK's Guardian Unlimited also cited President Pervez Musharraf, who told a joint news conference in London, "It was incidental that those criminals entered the school. It has been resolved peacefully." District police chief Dar Ali Khattak also told reporters that the militants had "all types of weapons like rocket launchers and grenades."

There have been heavy clashes between the military and Islamist militants in recent weeks, a subject that has been widely covered by the media. On Monday, the Pakistani press reported the Army reclaimed the Kohat tunnel on Sunday in fighting that left 24 militants dead and two security personnel injured. Military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas told the Daily Times, "Engineers are checking the tunnel for any explosives planted by militants. The tunnel and Indus Highway will be opened soon."

Monday's hostage-taking and subsequent surrender is significant to me not only because of what happened, but how the government failed to take complete advantage of the situation to further depict these militants in a negative light. In Iraq, Al Qaeda increasingly alienated its support because of its indiscriminate bombings - killing not just Iraqi Security Forces and U.S. soldiers, but also innocent civilians. As a result, many former insurgents allied with U.S. forces and fought against the extremist group. Likewise, today's incident (if Taliban-linked militants were behind it) can and should be broadcast in a similar light in order to garner the support of the local populace - that these militants are not acting in your interest, they kill indiscriminately, and their actions put your children and women in harm's way. In a culture heavily defined by honor, these themes curry support in the government's favor, and should be used as such. [Image from BBC News]


reimas said...

It appears that the hostage taking of school children was a random and unaffiliated act perpetrated by “criminals” non-aligned with any ideological extremist group. If such a link can be made, however, Kalsoom’s observation of the Government’s framing of the event is noteworthy.

In 2004, 10 armed Chechens took 1,200 school children hostage in the town of Beslan in a 3-day standoff which led to the killing of 334 civilians including 186 children. This event turned the PR battle in favor of Russia’s depicting of Chechen rebels as terrorists. Previously, Western media largely depicted Chechens as freedom fighting rebels with a cause.

The framing of issues holds great sway in the domestic and international arena. If the same connection (hostage takers with an ideology) can be made with the Pakistan incident, it can be used to garner tribal support against radical ideologies, as Kalsoom suggests. However, one should be careful to discriminate between random “criminal” behavior and that which is colored with a radical ideology. When governments begin to broad-stroke any “criminal” activity under the guise of terrorism, it is also a troubling phenomenon.

Fahad said...

I agree-- that would be smart for the gov. to do-- however it might backfire if the militants dont take responsibility and deny it (ala Behtullah Mehsud in BB's killing)

At this point credibility is a big issue... does anybody believe what the gov. says? Even if the gov. is winning the battle against these terrorists they are losing the battle of the hearts and minds... which might be more important in the long run. Just a thought!
Pakistan Zindabad

CHUP! Editor said...

It doesn't have to be just the government - if the military/govt doesn't have a lot of credibility then use "eyewitness" reports of local leaders speaking out against the hostage-taking. The tribal council negotiated the process - have more statements from them, etc. It bolsters statements made by the government and legitimizes their claims further.

Jay said...

This is really, really a wasted opportunity - especially with easy talking points in great demand during the U.S. election. Even the Russians managed to gain international sympathy from Beslan. During a time when Musharraf drastically needs to see gains in credibility, competence and image, this is an opportunity wasted. I regret that I look at this situation with such a callous point of view, but it really must be said.

Fahad said...

One of the externalities of the Mush government has been that the local leaders who have sided with the government have lost a lot of their support-- people want a change (thats why the MMA was successful). So I don't know if the local leaders or tribal leaders can make a difference anymore.