ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) – The tension long brewing around a radical mosque in Pakistan’s capital burst into street battles Tuesday between security forces and masked militants who challenged the government by mounting a vigilante anti-vice campaign.
At least nine people were killed and scores wounded in the clash, which underlined the concern at the spread of extremism in a country struggling to combat Taliban and al-Qaida militants.
The violence dramatically deepens a six-month standoff at Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, whose hard-line clerics have kidnapped alleged prostitutes and police in their efforts to impose a Taliban-style version of Islamic law in the capital.
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 had died, according to a lawmaker sent to mediate the dispute.
The deputy minister said 148 people were injured, most of them by tear gas fired by security forces.
By nightfall, the city’s top security official, Khalid Pervez, said a cease-fire had been reached with the militants.
But Warriach said the government was “considering all options” when asked what steps would be taken to defuse the standoff.
Officials said the unrest began Tuesday morning when police tried to stop militant students from occupying a government building. Reporters saw dozens of students, including young masked men with guns and black-robed women with long poles, moving toward security forces deployed about 200 yards from the red-walled, white-domed mosque.
Police shot tear gas and several male students, some of them masked, responded by opening fire. Gunfire was also heard from the police position.
Men brandishing assault rifles, pistols and molotov cocktails, some of them wearing gas-masks, then gathered around the mosque, while security forces cordoned off the area with barbed wire and checkpoints and lobbed tear gas canisters at the demonstrators.
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.
No such attacks were reported.
The students 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.
Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the mosque’s deputy leader, said the security forces sparked the unrest by erecting the barricades near the mosque. “The government is to be blamed for it,” he said. When asked about the presence of armed students at the mosque, Ghazi said they “are our guards.”
Warriach said it was the duty of the government to protect the life and property of its citizens, and “we will do it.”
Authorities have been at loggerheads with the mosque for months over a land dispute and its attempts to impose a harsh version of Islamic law in the capital.
Senior officials, including the head of the ruling party, have tried to negotiate a settlement of their grievances. However, clerics have steadily raised the stakes, kidnapping police officers and alleged prostitutes, including several Chinese nationals, and repeatedly threatening suicide attacks if security forces intervened.
Some accuse intelligence agencies of encouraging the crisis to justify a state of emergency and prolong military rule. President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, a U.S. ally who seized power in a 1999 coup, had planned to ask lawmakers for a new five-year term this fall, but that is now in doubt because of the uproar over his attempt to fire the country’s top judge.
Musharraf’s failure to crack down on the clerics’ activities in the capital has dented his credentials as a bulwark against extremism – diminishing his worth to Washington. Musharraf said last week that he was ready to raid the mosque, but warned that militants linked to al-Qaida had slipped inside and the media would blame any bloodbath on the government.
Also Tuesday, more than 2,000 students from an Islamic school rallied in the eastern city of Lahore, chanting slogans against Musharraf. Mufti Hamidullah Jan, a cleric at the Jamia Ashrafia madrassa, vowed to send his students to Islamabad if the government didn’t stop the action against the Red Mosque. “Now is not the time for protests, but jihad,” he said.
About 200 supporters of a radical religious party burned tires in the southwestern city of Quetta to protest the police moves against the mosque.
“Anyone who is a friend of America, is a traitor,” many protesters chanted.
Associated Press writers Denis Gray, Munir Ahmad and Sadaqat Jan in Islamabad, Zia Khan in Lahore and Abdul Sattar in Quetta contributed to this report.