Pakistani security forces fought fierce gun battles with students at a pro-Taliban mosque in Islamabad on Tuesday after a lengthy stand-off exploded into violence, leaving nine dead and 140 hurt.
Clerics at the radical Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, threatened suicide attacks to avenge the “blood of martyrs” after the day-long clashes, which killed a soldier, four students, a journalist and three bystanders.
The shootout followed months of tension over the mosque’s increasingly brazen challenges to the authority of President Pervez Musharraf, most recently by kidnapping seven Chinese citizens it accused of running a brothel.
“The deaths of nine people have been confirmed so far and more than 140 wounded,” Deputy Interior Minister Zafar Warriach told a news conference.
“A decision whether to continue the operation will be taken after assessing the ground realities. It is the government’s duty to provide protection to its countrymen,” Warriach added.
Security officials said the incident started when police fired volleys of tear gas after dozens of baton-wielding male and burqa-clad female students attacked policemen near the mosque, and stole four guns and a radio set.
As people fled from two busy shopping areas nearby, students wearing gas masks traded Kalashnikov fire with security forces from behind sandbags and bunkers chanting “Jihad! Jihad! [holy war]”, an Agence France-Presse (AFP) correspondent said.
Sporadic exchanges of gunfire continued throughout the afternoon. The students torched two government buildings as the violence escalated, an AFP correspondent said.
Later students set fire to the nearby Ministry of Environment Building and a nearby property belonging to the Capital Development Authority. A loud blast was heard, believed to be related to the fires.
A cameraman for a private television channel was shot dead when troops let off a burst of gunfire to disperse the mob as it tried to smash up a nearby girls’ school, an AFP photographer who witnessed the incident said.
A loudspeaker announcement from the mosque as night fell warned of impending suicide attacks.
“The blood of the martyrs will not go to waste. We are ready for suicide attacks,” the unidentified mullah’s voice said.
Hospitals in Islamabad declared a state of emergency as blood-spattered minibuses from the mosque ferried in casualties, as well as private ambulances.
They said many of the injured were female students from the mosque suffering from tear-gas inhalation. One girl was undergoing surgery to remove bullets from her back and hand.
A spokesperson for the mosque said 12 students in all had been killed but this was not confirmed by officials.
Musharraf, a key ally in the United States “war on terror”, has faced mounting criticism at home and abroad over the failure to crack down on the Red Mosque’s campaign to enforce Islamic sharia laws.
Musharraf said last week that suicide bombers from an al-Qaeda-linked Islamic militant group were sheltering in the mosque.
But he has held off largely for fear of causing casualties among the thousands of students — especially the women, most of whom hail from Taliban-sympathising areas along the Afghan border.
One of the two brothers who runs the mosque, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, said the students had retaliated after security forces opened fire, and said the authorities had broken an agreement not to besiege the mosque.
“The administration wants to see dead bodies scattered on the roads. Why are they doing this?” he asked a local television channel. “There had been no action from our side since the Chinese incident.”
The mosque has been monitored by scores of security personnel since its students took control of a neighbouring government-run children’s library in January. — AFP