Battle at radical mosque in Islamabad leaves 9 dead

The battle marks a major escalation in a six-month standoff at the Red Mosque, whose clerics have challenged the government with a Taliban-style anti-vice campaign.

pakistani mosque 298 88 (photo credit: AP)
pakistani mosque 298 88
(photo credit: AP)
Street battles between Islamic radicals and security forces at a fortress-like mosque in the Pakistani capital left at least nine people dead Tuesday, adding to the country's sense of crisis. Militant supporters of the mosque later pelted two government buildings, including the Ministry of Environment, with rocks and set them ablaze, and torched a dozen cars in the ministry's lot. The violence dramatically deepened a six-month standoff at Islamabad's Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, whose hardline clerics have challenged the government by kidnapping alleged prostitutes and police in a Taliban-style anti-vice campaign. At nightfall, the city's top security official, Khalid Pervez, said a ceasefire had been reached with the armed militants. Deputy Interior Minister Zafar Warriach said the dead included four students, three civilians, one soldier and a journalist. However, clerics at the mosque claimed that 10 of their supporters died, according to a lawmaker sent to mediate. Warriach said 148 were injured, most of them by tear gas fired by security forces. "The government is considering all options," the minister said when asked what steps would be taken to defuse the stand-off. He said no decision has been taken on imposing a national state of emergency, but did not elaborate. Officials said the trouble started on Tuesday morning when police moved to stop militant students from occupying a government building. Reporters saw dozens of students, including young men with guns and women in black burqas, moving toward security forces deployed about 200 meters (yards) from the red-walled, white domed mosque. Police shot tear gas and several male students, some of them masked, opened fire toward the security forces. Gunfire was also heard from the police position. Security forces, some riding in armored vehicles, cordoned off the area with barbed wire and checkpoints, and sporadic gunfire continued for several hours. Men brandishing assault rifles, pistols and Molotov cocktails, some of them wearing gas-masks, were seen among about 200 people marauding around the mosque, where lobbed tear-gas canisters landed regularly. At one point, a man used the mosque's loudspeakers to order suicide bombers to get into position. "They have attacked our mosque, the time for sacrifice has come," the man said. However, no such attacks were reported. Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the mosque's deputy leader, said the Rangers sparked the trouble by erecting barricades near the mosque. "The government is to be blamed for it," he said. When asked about the presence of armed students at his mosque, Ghazi said they "are our guards." Shah Abdul Aziz, a lawmaker for a hard-line religious party who rushed to the mosque to mediate said the mosque's leaders claimed that 10 of their supporters had died, including two female students. "This matter can be resolved through dialogue. Force is not the solution," Aziz said. Police and witnesses said more than 2,000 students from an Islamic school in the eastern city of Lahore rallied Tuesday, chanting slogans against Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Addressing the protesters, Mufti Hamidullah Jan, a cleric at the Jamia Ashrafia madrassa, vowed to send his students to Islamabad if the government did not stop its action at the Red Mosque. "Now is not the time for protests, but jihad (holy war)," he said. The students shouted "yes" when Jan asked them if they were ready for holy war. Also Tuesday, about 200 supporters of a radical religious party in the southwestern city of Quetta burned tires to protest the police action against the Islamabad mosque and chanted slogans against Musharraf and US President George W. Bush. "Anyone who is a friend of America, is a traitor," many of the protesters chanted. Authorities have been at loggerheads with the mosque for months over a land dispute and after its followers began a campaign to impose a harsh version of Islamic law in the capital. Senior officials, including the head of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q party, have tried to negotiate a settlement of their grievances. However, the clerics have steadily raised the stakes, staging kidnappings of police officers and alleged prostitutes, including several Chinese nationals, and repeatedly threatening suicide attacks if security forces intervene. Some accuse intelligence agencies of encouraging the crisis to justify a state of emergency and prolong military rule - a conspiracy theory with considerable traction in Pakistan's intrigue-ridden politics. Plans for the general, a close US ally who seized power in a 1999 coup, to ask lawmakers for a new five-year term this fall are in doubt because of a political row over his attempt to fire the country's top judge. However, Musharraf's failure to crack down on the clerics' spreading fear in the capital has dented his credentials as a bulwark against extremism - diminishing his worth to Washington, his key international backer. Musharraf said last week that he was ready to raid the mosque, but warned that militants linked to al-Qaida had slipped inside and that the media would blame any bloodbath on the government.