Police defend response to Islamabad gunman

ISLAMABAD - Pakistani police defended Friday their response to a gunman who shut down the heart of the heavily guarded capital for five hours in a standoff that ended with him being shot and wounded.

Waving two semi-automatic guns and occasionally firing into the air, Mohammad Sikandar was accompanied by his wife and children throughout the tense drama late Thursday that took place close to Islamabad's political quarter.

Broadcast live on Pakistan's freewheeling rolling news channels, hours of stalemate came to a chaotic end when Zamarud Khan, a senior member of the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party sent to negotiate, made a sudden lunge at the gunman.

Khan slipped and missed his man, but police opened fire, seriously wounding Sikandar in the chest and leg before arresting him, dragging him off as blood poured from his wounds. Doctors said he was improving on Friday.

The drama in the centre of the normally sleepy capital drew a huge crowd of onlookers and media, and Islamabad police chief Muhammad Rizwan said they were to blame for the slow response, denying his men had dithered in the face of the challenge.

"The commando operation was delayed because we needed proper space between the general public and the gunman," he said on Geo TV.

"We had asked media and the general public who had gathered there to stay at least 300 metres away for their own safety, but they did not move away." Rizwan said there was a gap of only 50 metres (160 feet) between the crowd and Sikandar, making it impossible to tackle him safely.

He said it appeared Sikandar was not part of any extremist outfit.

"The preliminary investigations suggest that this man is not associated with any group and it was his own individual act," he told Geo TV.

The standoff began around 5:30 pm (1230 GMT) when police flagged down the car for a traffic offence on the central Jinnah Avenue neighbourhood - just over a kilometre from the presidency and parliament buildings.

Sikandar then started firing into the air, forcing markets and shops in the area to close, before making a series of rambling demands including the resignation of the government, the imposition of Sharia law and the release of a son from prison in Dubai.

Some police officials said he appeared to have mental health problems but Rizwan said this was yet to be confirmed.

He underwent three hours of surgery during the night, doctor Wasim Khawaja, spokesman for the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences hospital, said.

"Hopefully he will be normal in 24 hours. We have put him on a ventilator and he is maintaining his blood pressure," Khawaja told AFP.

Sikandar's wife was also shot in the leg as the scene reached its conclusion but doctors said she was out of danger on Friday.

As the standoff played out during the evening, Sikandar smoked cigarettes and spoke to TV stations on his mobile phone while his children played around his car.

The politician Khan, hailed a hero by some local media, said he felt he had to intervene.

"I was sitting at home and watching this whole drama on TV," he told Geo TV.

"I came out with a commitment that I will catch this guy, even if it takes my life." Pakistan's outgoing President Asif Ali Zardari praised the intervention of his party colleague.

Zardari "lauded the courage of PPP leader Zamarud Khan who, risking his own life, has helped law-enforcing agencies getting hold of the armed man tonight in Islamabad", a statement from the presidency said.

"The president also appreciated the role of security agencies who have handled the situation in a discreet manner and have averted any mishap," it added.