By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 5, 2007
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, July 5 -- The bombastic cleric at the center of a deadly months-long standoff between the Pakistani government and a radical mosque was arrested Wednesday night as he attempted to flee, disguised in a burqa, government officials said.
The arrest of Maulana Abdul Aziz, who initiated a series of provocative acts that led to a bloody street clash Tuesday, came as at least 1,000 supporters from the besieged mosque surrendered.
At dawn Thursday, security forces who had set up a tight cordon around the mosque appeared to be carrying out an operation against those who were left inside. Witnesses reported hearing approximately 15 loud explosions, as well as an intense exchange of gunfire. It was unknown exactly how many people remained inside the mosque, but they received a warning delivered by loudspeaker that it was their last chance to get out.
Aziz's arrest and the student defections on Wednesday represented a rare victory for the government of President Pervez Musharraf, which has been under pressure as it stumbles through a series of crises. Musharraf, a general who also leads the army, has struggled with how to deal with the mosque, knowing that a raid could lead to mass casualties but that inaction could embolden religious extremists.
Leaders of the pro-Taliban Red Mosque had turned themselves into a self-appointed anti-vice squad in recent months. Students from an affiliated religious school, or madrassa, kidnapped alleged prostitutes and forced them to confess. They also threatened violence against music store owners in this relatively moderate city if they did not close their shops.
On Wednesday, the government promised any students who left the mosque 5,000 rupees, or $83. For those who refused to surrender, the military threatened a raid. Heavily armed soldiers manned the streets around the mosque Wednesday with orders to shoot on sight anyone who was not authorized to be outdoors. Residents of the area were required to stay in their homes, and a barbed-wire perimeter kept outsiders from the mosque.
Throughout the day, a steady stream of female students left the mosque grounds, and a burqa-clad Aziz tried to join the exodus, Information Minister Mohammed Ali Durrani said.
Aziz -- a tall man with a substantial gut -- apparently raised the suspicions of female police officers who were checking the students. He was placed under arrest and has been charged with murder for his role in the Tuesday clash, a day-long shootout between army rangers and Red Mosque militants that claimed at least 12 lives.
The cleric's arrest while wearing a burqa was a jarring sight, and Pakistani television stations showed endless replays of a gray-bearded Aziz being led away from the mosque by shotgun-wielding security forces. In the video, he was still wearing the all-black burqa from the neck down, though he was clutching the outfit's hood in his hand.
"This is totally unexpected. It's also unacceptable," said Misbah Saboohi, a law professor at the International Islamic University who grew up with Aziz.
In fiery speeches to his followers, Aziz had preached a strict separation of men and women with rigid adherence to gender rules that he said are set forth in Islamic law. He once issued a fatwa, or religious edict, against a female government official for publicly hugging a man who was not her husband.
"He himself was doing what he preached people should not do," Saboohi said. "He said that men and women should be separated. And here he's dressing like a woman and mingling with women."
Others were more forgiving. "Everyone has freedom to wear what they'd like," said Siraj-ul-Haq, senior minister in the North-West Frontier Province and a member of a far-right religious party. "If he is wearing pants or shalwar or burqa, it's up to him."
There was no immediate word on the whereabouts of Aziz's brother, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who is the mosque's deputy leader and its public face.
Also unknown was the number of madrassa students who remained inside; leaders have said the school has more than 4,000 students. They have also indicated that the students are well-armed and that some have been trained as suicide bombers.
But one of the students who left the mosque said that is not so. "We don't have any ammunition or anything else," said Rizwana Kausar, 20, who has been studying at the madrassa for two years.
Kausar said there were hundreds of small children in the mosque, many of them orphans.
The madrassa was popular among poor families from the conservative North-West Frontier Province because it offered a free, religious-based education for students growing up in an area where the government has few quality schools.
Anxious parents fearing for their children's safety streamed into Islamabad on Wednesday to retrieve their sons and daughters.
Alam Gul, who lives near the western city of Peshawar, said he sent his son to the school so he could become a religious scholar, not so he could fight and die. Gul blamed the government for putting his son at risk.
"Everybody knows that the government is doing all this for the appeasement of the United States," he said.
Leaders of other madrassas have threatened to use their students against the government if the crackdown on the Red Mosque continues. A total of 14 people were killed Wednesday in two insurgent attacks on security forces, though it was unknown whether they were related to the Red Mosque siege.
"I advise rulers to stop this game of maligning religious madrassas," said Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, leader of one of the country's largest madrassas. "Otherwise it would have dangerous consequences."
Special correspondents Shahzad Khurram in Islamabad and Imtiaz Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.