ISLAMABAD - Interior Minister Ch Nisar Ali Khan yesterday vowed to launch a ‘soft’ operation today (Wednesday) to clear the D-Chowk in case the protesters did not avail Tuesday night to voluntarily leave the venue.

Addressing a press conference late Tuesday night, Nisar said the government did not want loss of life in the course of action to disperse the protesters that is why ‘it has decided to give one day time to the protesters to leave the sit-in venue voluntarily’.

Earlier in the day a warning by Islamabad administration to the protesters to vacate the place within two hours fell on deaf ears.

The protesters had originally gathered in Rawalpindi for Chehlum of Mumtaz Qadri, a former bodyguard and assassin of Punjab governor Salman Taseer, who was executed for committing murder in cold blood.

Upon being provoked by the religious leaders, the protesters then marched towards the capital – fighting with police all the way to D-Chowk, near the Parliament building. They have presented 10 demands, which include recognition of Mumtaz Qadri as a martyr by the state.

In certain parts of Islamabad, mobile phone services remained suspended for the third consecutive day on Tuesday. The Metro Bus service was also suspended in the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad due to the protests.

“At present, the local administration is mulling who should be given a safe passage. Some of the protesters’ leaders are quite aged,” the minister said.

“We don’t want chaos by using force against the protesters that is why the operation has been postponed until Wednesday (today),” he said, with a hope that the protesters would leave the venue at their own.

He made it clear that, if needed, the operation would be carried out in the day light by the unarmed personnel of law-enforcement agencies to avoid any loss to life.

In the hurriedly-called press conference, the minister said that the government was not holding any (direct) negotiations with the heads of the protesting groups.

“The matter is not political… only the district administration and two senior religious leaders from Karachi - who themselves contacted the government ministers - are holding talks with the protesters”, he added.

Admitting that the forced entry of protesters into the capital was negligence of the local administration and police, he said that a committee headed by interior additional secretary has been constituted to probe the matter and action would be taken against the responsible.

Nisar said in future, it would be ensured that protesters could not make the capital hostage like this. He said such incidents cause embarrassment for the country.

The minister said that a group backtracked from their written commitment that they would disperse peacefully after the conclusion of Chehlum procession at Liaquat Bagh of Rawalpindi. He said that pictures of the violent elements had been captured and action would be taken against them.

The minister apologised for inconvenience to the people for suspension of the cellular services for the last three days.

Late in the evening, Islamabad commissioner and deputy commissioner along with a group of ulema reached the red zone to negotiate with the protesters. Earlier, a warning was also issued to the protesters to vacate the D-Chowk at the earliest.

District magistrate Islamabad served a notice to the dharna leaders present on the occasion, including Sarwat Ejaz Qadri, Dr Ashraf Jalali, Mufti Abid Mubarak, Shadab Raza and Hamid Raza Qadri, demanding them ‘to disperse and move away from the place of unlawful assembly immediately and not later than two hours.”

The notice further read: “In case of your non-compliance, the law-enforcing agencies shall take action in accordance with law by removing illegal gathering and unlawful assembly.” The notice accused the protesters of attempting “to frustrate the government’s drive against terrorism”.

But the protesters did not pay any head to the warning.

As of Tuesday night, around 7,000 personnel of the law-enforcing agencies were all set to expel the protesters from D-Chowk. The personnel of the police, Frontier Constabulary (FC) and Punjab constabulary are in riot gear to deal with any kind of situation in case the crisis is not resolved amicably.

Additional security personnel were called to Islamabad for the operation. By Tuesday evening, the police from adjoining Rawalpindi district had started pouring in the red zone along with personnel of FC.