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Military officials to brief lawmakers tomorrow

ISLAMABAD: Amid heightening political tension in the country, National Assembly Speal(er Asad Qaiser on Monday called a crucial meeting of the parliamentary leaders in the National Assembly and the Senate tomorrow (Wednesday) for a briefing by `military officials on the current issues of national security`.

The National Assembly Secretariat has issued official communication to all the parliamentary leaders inviting them to attend the meeting, which will be held at Committee Room No 2 of the Parliament House, according to an official announcement.

Sources in the government told Dawn that the main objective of the briefing was to make an effort to develop a national consensus on granting `provisional provincial status` to strategically-located GilgitBaltistan (GB).

Though there was no official confirmation from the government or the army`s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the sources said it was expected that Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa and head of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Lt-Gen Faiz Hameed would conduct the briefing.

The AJK government, headed by the PML-N, had some reservations over the move to grant the provisional status of the province to GB, the sources said, adding that in the meeting scheduled for Wednesday efforts would be made to address their concerns.

Speaking to the participants of the Azadi Parade at the 73rd Independence Day of GB on Nov 1, Prime Minister Imran Khan had announced that the government had decided to grant the provisional status of the province to the region in line with the UN resolutions.

The list of those invited for the briefing also contains the names of AJK President Masood Khan, AJK Prime Minister Raja Farooq Haider, GB Governor Raja Jalal Magpoon and GB caretaker chief minister Mir Afzal.

Opposition to finalise plan today Meanwhile, the country`s two major opposition parties the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)declared that they had not yet decided about participation in the briefing, hinting at a possible boycott of the event.

`We have already announced to boycott any meeting under the National Assembly speaker. The party believes that it should not participate in the briefing. However, the final decision in this regard will be made after consultation with the other parties of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM),` said PML-N vicepresident and MNA Khurram Dastagir Khan while talking to Dawn.

Mr Khan said that PML-N`s parliamentary leader in the National Assembly, Khawaja Asif, would consult the leaders of other PDM member parties today (Tuesday) to make a final decision.

Similarly, PML-N`s General Secretary Ahsan Iqbal, when contacted, said the party was so far undecided about its participation in the briefing. Presently, he said, they were busy in running the election campaign in GB. He said since PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari was also present in GB, they would get an opportunity to discuss thematter with him.

When contacted, PPP Senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, who is also the official spokesperson for Mr Bhutto-Zardari, said they had come to know about the speaker`s invitation in the evening when they returned to an area with internet connectivity.

He said Mr Bhutto-Zardari had been allowed by the GB Supreme Appellate Court to stay in the region till Nov 12 to run the campaign and so far he had made no plan to return to Islamabad.

He also said that a final decision in this regard would be made today (Tuesday).

The opposition members who have been invited for the meeting are PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and Senator Sherry Rehman, Khawaja Asif and Mushahidullah Khan of the PML-N, Balochistan National Party chief Sardar Akhtar Mengal and his party senator Jehanzeb Jamaldini, Jamaat-i-Islami chief Sirajul Haq, Amir Haider Hoti and Sitara Ayaz of the Awami National Party, Asad Mahmood and Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Haideri of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam, Mir Kabeer Shahi of the National Party and Usman Kakar of the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party.

It may be recalled that the National Assembly speaker had to previously cancel the parliamentary leaders` meeting he had on September 28 on coming GB elections af ter the opposition parties announced that they would not become part of any parliamentary committee under him for his alleged biased conduct during the joint sitting of parliament on September 16.

The opposition parties had also condemned the speaker`s move to convene the meeting, saying the speaker and the federal government had no role in the elections for the GB Legislative Assembly.

This is not for the first time that such a briefing is being arranged for the parliamentary leaders on the GB issue and a previous such gathering had stirred a political controversy when Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed disclosed that on one hand the opposition leaders were targeting the army in their speeches and on the other hand, they had been holding secret meetings with the military leadership.

The minister disclosed that only days before the opposition`s multiparty conference (MPC), the opposition members, including PML-N president Shahbaz Sharif, Mr Bhutto-Zardari and Asad Mehmood, had met the army chief and the ISI head.

The timing of the meeting held on September 16 and its disclosure was linked by the onlookers to the opposition`s MPC in which former prime minister Nawaz Sharif had bitterly criticised the army, saying there was `a state above the state in the country`.

The disclosure by the railways minister put the opposition members on the back foot and they clarified that they had attended the meeting only because it was on the issues of national security. According to them, under the set ground rules, the meeting was to be kept secret.

The railways minister claimed that the PPP and the PML-N leaders had already assured the army chief that they would support the move to grant `provisional provincial status` to GB.

In the meeting, the army chief had reportedly asked the political leaders to refrain from dragging the military into political issues.

The leaders of the PPP and the PML-N, however, claimed that the understandinghad onlybeenreached at the meeting that the issue would be taken up and discussed after the elections in GB scheduled for Nov 15.

A senior opposition member, while talking to Dawn on condition of anonymity, had said the opposition had categorically told the government and the army chief that any such move before the elections would be considered a `pre-poll rigging` and that they would also have to look into its ramifications as it should not disturb the country`s stance on the Kashmir dispute.

According to the railways minister, Gen Bajwa had left it on the country`s political leadership to decide the timing of the implementation of the decision about change in the GB`s constitutional status.

PPP`s Sherry Rehman later said changing the constitutional status of GB was a `sensitive matter` as India always made Pakistan a target of criticism on the issue.

A key government minister, who is privy to the development, had told Dawn that it was on the request of the opposition parties that the government had agreed to initiate the process of consultations on the proposal to convert the GB into a province after the elections in the area as the opposition believed that if such a move was initiated now then the PTI could take political advantage of it in the upcoming elections.