Parents still hunt for missing children after Pakistan mosque siege ends

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) – When Bakhat Fazil rushed to the embattled Red Mosque to rescue his three daughters trapped inside he was greeted not by his children but by a barrage of bullets.

He survived and his daughters were freed. But dozens of parents still had no word of their children as the bloody weeklong siege ended Wednesday.

At least 106 people died, including 73 suspected militants whose bodies were found by Pakistani troops clearing the sprawling mosque complex of mines, booby traps and other weaponry. Ten soldiers, a police ranger and a number of civilians caught in the crossfire of the initial street fighting were also among the dead.

Al-Qaida’s No. 2 released a videotape Wednesday calling on Pakistanis to join a holy war against President Pervez Musharraf’s government.

“Rigged elections will not save you, politics will not save you, and bargaining, bootlicking negotiations with the criminals, and political maneuvers will not save you,” a white-clad Ayman al-Zawahri said in the video, which was subtitled in English. Its authenticity could not immediately be confirmed, but two U.S.-based terrorism monitoring groups also reported it.

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz told reporters Wednesday no bodies of women or children had been found, although seven or eight corpses had been burned beyond recognition.

, apparently by the militants’ exploded gasoline bombs.

“The major group of women was all together and came out all together,” he said, referring to 27 women, a 9-year-old boy and two girls, aged 3 and 5, who emerged from the mosque Tuesday. “The operation is over. Everybody who was inside is out.”

Still, dozens of children and young men and women who attended a religious school attached to the mosque remained unaccounted for Wednesday. Frantic parents waited anxiously at barricades thrown up by the army or searched at morgues and a sports stadium where authorities set up an information center for the missing.

“Oh God! help me find my son!” said Mohammed Ajmal, 39, who lost contact with 14-year-old Mohammed Amjad four days ago. “I went to all hospitals. I contacted police and the government, but I have no information about my son,” he said, raising his arms to the sky.

Ajmal, who sent Amjad from their remote hometown in northern Pakistan a year ago to study the Quran at a religious school associated with the Red Mosque, was among about 100 parents searching for their loved ones at the sports stadium.

The government says 1,300 people, including men, women and children, escaped or otherwise left the compound after the army siege began on July 3. It followed six months of mounting tension as the followers of the mosque’s chief cleric kidnapped policemen and alleged prostitutes in a campaign to impose Taliban-style morality on the capital.

Students at the mosque’s male and female schools ranged in age from as young as 4 to their early 20s. The female school also housed some widows and children left homeless by the 2005 earthquake that killed more than 80,000 people in northern Pakistan.

Lying in his hospital bed at the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences, Fazil recounted how he was hit by bullets in the shoulder and leg when he went to the mosque to get his daughters, then saw his wife running for cover amid the crossfire of a fierce clash between security forces and militants.

After waiting in agony on the ground for six hours, an army ambulance finally took him to a government hospital. There he learned with relief that his daughters, all under 10 years old, had been released from the mosque school.

Fazil, a 38-year-old taxi driver from northwestern Pakistan, says his daughters were prevented from leaving the seminary by extremists.

“I know many parents begged for the release of their children,” he said. “I curse those who didn’t free innocent women and children, and who held them against their will.”

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz warned Wednesday the government would act against any other madrassa, or religious school, found to be involved in militancy.

“Militancy cannot be promoted, period,” he told reporters. “The law will take its course, as the law took its course here.”

Fazil said he sent his daughters to study, not to become militants.

It remains unclear how many, if any, of the students were held hostage by the radicals inside the mosque as the government claims. A number among the 1,300 clearly said they would have remained behind to face possible death if it had not been for their anxious parents.

“When I heard that the government was considering to launch an operation against the mosque, I rushed to Islamabad with my wife,” Fazil said. “Although we faced some problem, and I was hurt, I am happy that my daughters are safe.”

AP-ES-07-11-07 1743EDT

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