Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Gun Battle at Lal Masjid in Islamabad

Nine Killed in Pakistan Gun Battle at Red Mosque
By Khaleeq Ahmed and Khalid Qayum: Bloomberg.com: July 3, 2007

July 3 (Bloomberg) -- A Pakistani paramilitary officer was among nine people killed in gunfire exchanged between police and students of the Red Mosque in Islamabad today, three months after the chief cleric said he wanted to impose Islamic law in the capital.

The students of Lal Masjid, or red mosque, opened gunfire on the police first, according to a statement issued by Pakistan's interior ministry today. The police were trying to disperse about 125 students who had forced away weapons from four policemen deployed at a nearby picket, the statement said.

Three students of the mosque and one photographer of the local Markaz newspaper were also killed in the exchange of gunfire, Information Minister Muhammad Ali Durrani told reporters in Islamabad today. Two more security officials and two passersby were also killed, he said.

About 50 female students from a seminary adjacent to the mosque were injured because of tear gas fired by police, eyewitnesses said.

``The government is considering all the options and discussions are going on,'' Durrani said in a phone interview. ``We want to minimize the loss of life and it is better for them to obey the law of the land.''

Ongoing Fire

The government ``is responsible for the killings because the police started unprovoked firing'' on the students, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the mosque's deputy cleric, said, according to Aryone World news channel. ``We are ready to negotiate a peaceful settlement if the police ends siege of the mosque,'' he said.

The exchange of fire started at about noon local time and continued into the evening as students of the mosque set fire to a nearby government building, a school and several cars. The police and rangers have surrounded the mosque, according to eye witnesses.

Israr Ahmed, a cameraman working for CNBC Pakistan, received three bullet wounds while covering the incident today, Nadeem Malik, the channel's bureau chief said in a phone interview.

Pakistan's commercial capital of Karachi and embassies have been placed on ``red alert'' following the gun battle at the mosque, GEO reported, citing the police chief.

GEO television broadcast images of the mosque's students wearing gas masks and wielding guns and sticks. Shopping centers were shut down in areas near the mosque and emergency was declared at hospitals in the capital, the broadcaster said, without saying where the information was obtained.

Standoff Began

The standoff between police and the students began in April when Maulana Mohammad Abdul Aziz, the mosque's chief cleric, set up a court on the premises, saying he wanted to bring Islamabad under Islamic law. President Pervez Musharraf has stressed that Pakistan must follow a path of moderation to defeat extremism in the country.

Pakistan deployed rangers and police outside the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, last week, to stop students at an adjacent seminary from raiding shops and houses following last week's kidnapping and release of seven Chinese people.

``We want to preempt similar incidents in future,'' Javed Iqbal Lodhi, a director at the National Crisis Management Center of the Interior Ministry, said on June 28. ``We have instructed the police to keep an eye on the students because we want to avoid such an incident again.''

Students linked to the Lal Masjid took seven Chinese hostages last month from what they called a massage parlor and brothel in the vicinity. Police negotiated their release a day later.

Chinese Security

That prompted China to call on Pakistan to strengthen measures to protect the security of Chinese people working in the South Asian nation, Xinhua has reported, citing Zhou Yongkang, minister for public security.

Pakistan's government also negotiated the release of four policemen taken hostage by the students at the seminary in May.

The students raided shops in the nearby Aabpara market on grounds they were selling obscene films and wanted the owners to close their businesses. The government delayed an operation against the cleric because there were female students on the premises, Interior Minister Sherpao said last month.

Clerics set up the Islamic court at the Red Mosque on April 6 and issued a decree calling for former Tourism Minister Nilofar Bahktiar to be punished for wearing an ``objectionable'' dress. Aziz threatened suicide attacks if police tried to shut the court or raid the premises and demanded the government close businesses selling videos and CDs and alleged brothels.

To contact the reporter on this story: Khaleeq Ahmed in Islamabad at and Khalid Qayum in Islamabad at kqayum@bloomberg.net

For Reuters coverage of the issue, click here

For BBC news report, click here

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