Siege at Pakistan's "Red Mosque" Continues
By SALMAN MASOOD: New York Times, July 5, 2007
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, July 5 — A hard core of militants numbering in the dozens remained holed up in the beseiged Red Mosque complex today as Pakistani forces continued to exert pressure on them. Three helicopter gunships hovered over the religious seminary affiliated with the mosque, and security forces exchanged fire with militants inside.
The interior minister, Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao, said today that 50 to 60 people remained inside the mosque, while more than 700 male and 400 female students who had been inside had surrendered. The minister said the death toll had risen to 19 people killed in clashes with the security forces around the mosque, which started on Tuesday.
Around 3 o’clock this morning several large explosions, mortar fire and a heavy exchange of gunfire could be heard coming from the area of the mosque, indicating that some kind of military operation was under way.
Pakistani security forces arrested one of the leaders of the rebellion on Wednesday as he tried to escape disguised in a burqa, the long, concealing robe that many pious Muslim women wear. Today, the arrested leader, Maulana Abdul Aziz, called for those remaining inside the mosque to flee or surrender, The Associated Press reported. He is the elder of the two brothers leading the uprising.
Mr. Sherpao said that there would be no negotiations with the younger brother, Abdur Rashid Ghazi, who is believed to still be inside the complex.
“He should surrender unconditionally,” Mr. Sherpao said.
The religious complex was founded by the brothers’ father, a famous jihadi leader who was assassinated in 1998.
Seven of the people leaving the complex today were arrested and blindfolded. “They are suspected hardcore militants,” said Col. Muhammad Ali of the Pakistan Army Rangers. “I don’t know what their objectives were. We are investigating.”
Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the president of Pakistan, directed the security services today to be patient and to allow parents to safely take their daughters out of the school, known as Jamia Hafsa, according to the state-run news media.
The standoff at the mosque complex has been an embarrassment for the government since January, when radical students there began mounting a series of public challenges to General Musharraf, calling for the imposition of Islamic sharia law throughout Pakistan.
Western diplomats and General Musharraf’s political opponents here say that the general has failed to stand up to the Islamic extremists, and that their widening influence threatens the security of the country, which is on the front line of American-led efforts to battle Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
After a bloody and chaotic day on Tuesday, the government moved in heavy armor and more Pakistani Army Rangers overnight, imposing a curfew around the mosque, also known as Lal Masjid, which lies just a few blocks from the main government offices in Islamabad.
Those remaining inside the mosque were given a deadline of 11 a.m. Wednesday to lay down their weapons and surrender. The authorities cut off the power in the area and demanded that nearby residents stay in their houses.
Popular feeling seemed to be turning against the radical leaders on Wednesday. Relatives of students who attended the separate male and female schools inside the mosque compound said they had not been aware that weapons were kept in the complex.
Security forces announced over a loudspeaker that the government would give each student 5,000 rupees (about $82) and arrange for alternative education in government-run schools if they left the mosque complex peacefully.
“We ensure no action against women and children and those who were not involved in any unlawful activity, and promise them a safe passage and 5,000 rupees each, by President Pervez Musharraf, as expenses for traveling to their homes,” the minister of state for information and broadcasting, Tariq Azim Khan, said at a news conference Wednesday.
Carlotta Gall contributed reporting for this article.
Also See: Pakistan Says Militants Prevent Surrender by Students By Khalid Qayum and Khaleeq Ahmed: Bloomber.com: July 5, 2007