Pakistan Launches Operation Against Radicals in Mosque

Security forces take away suspected mosque fighters.
Security forces take away suspected mosque fighters. "We want absolute, total and unconditional surrender," the information minister declared. (Photos By Anjum Naveed -- Associated Press)
By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 6, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, July 6 -- Pakistani security forces launched a major operation Thursday against radical students holed up in an Islamabad mosque, seeking to end a months-long standoff that has turned bloody in recent days.

Fighting raged in the darkness and continued early Friday, with the pops and cracks of small-arms fire echoing through the silence of a residential neighborhood. Just after 3 a.m., there was a major explosion, followed by an intense round of shooting that lasted nearly half an hour.

The government had earlier been hoping to pressure the students to leave the mosque peacefully, but those negotiations appeared to have broken down.

It was not immediately clear how many people had been killed in the clash, but leaders of the pro-Taliban Red Mosque have said they are prepared to fight to the death. The government, meanwhile, vowed Thursday to settle for nothing less than surrender.

"We want absolute, total and unconditional surrender," Tariq Azim Khan, state information minister, told reporters. He added, though, that the government believed some in the mosque were being held against their will and that "the parents of students who are still inside requested us to give more time. It will be wrong to go in with full force when women and children are still inside."

Pakistani officials have repeatedly said they wanted to give students, especially the many young girls believed to be in the compound, enough time to leave before commencing an all-out assault. But it appeared Friday that time was fast running out.

Mosque leaders have tried in recent months to impose a rigid interpretation of Islamic law on this cosmopolitan capital, part of their efforts to turn Pakistan into a theocratic state. From their base in the heart of the city, students with an affiliated madrassa, or religious school, have taken alleged prostitutes hostage and have threatened music store owners with attacks.

Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has struggled with how to combat the challenge. He has been criticized by moderate forces within Pakistan for not cracking down earlier and for allowing extremism to spread within the country. But Musharraf has said he was concerned that a raid could lead to civilian casualties and that it could provoke a backlash.

Musharraf's hand was forced Tuesday when a firefight broke out between radical students and army rangers that claimed at least 19 lives. More than 1,000 students heeded government calls Wednesday to surrender, and by Thursday night it seemed as though those remaining in the mosque would soon follow.

But as the sun set, a plume of thick black smoke could be seen rising above the mosque following a series of powerful explosions. Witnesses reported that the concrete wall surrounding the mosque had been at least partially destroyed, and heavily armed commandos dressed in black seemed to be moving into position for a possible raid.

Stone-faced soldiers manning sandbagged guard posts stood watch at virtually every intersection within half a mile of the mosque. Helicopter gunships circled overhead, and armored personnel carriers with machine guns mounted on the backs rumbled through otherwise deserted streets.

"It's been a little terrifying," said Faisal Imtiaz, who lives near the mosque with his mother, brother and three sisters. Like other residents, Imtiaz had been restricted to his home for days because soldiers were ordered to shoot on sight anyone not authorized to be in the streets.

The mosque's leader, Maulana Abdul Aziz, was arrested Wednesday night as he attempted to flee disguised in a burqa. His detention briefly sparked hopes that the standoff would be settled without further bloodshed, especially after Aziz, in an interview with Pakistani state television, called for the 600 girls and 250 boys who he said remained in the mosque to escape or surrender. Aziz said the holdouts had only 15 Kalashnikov rifles -- a far cry from the extensive arsenal that was reported earlier.

"I saw after coming out that the siege is very intense," Aziz said. "Our companions will not be able to stay for long."

Following Aziz's arrest, his younger brother, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, took over leadership of the mosque. In a series of television interviews Thursday night, the normally combative Ghazi seemed worn down, saying he wanted only to ensure that his students were given safe passage out of the mosque and that he be treated "with dignity." Ghazi also said that any militants in the mosque with ties to known terrorist organizations could be arrested and charged.

But after finally indicating he was ready to surrender, Ghazi abruptly shifted course late Thursday and said he would continue to fight until the government promised to let him escape.

A trickle of students continued to emerge from the mosque Thursday after the exodus Wednesday. Some of those who left reported that others were being held in the mosque against their will.

"They want to come out, but they are not allowed to do so," a young student who had surrendered said in an interview with the private station GEO News. "I think it's just to keep the pressure on the government."

While the brothers had earlier elicited support from other hard-line religious leaders nationwide, sentiment seemed to shift against them Thursday following news of Aziz's arrest. In fiery sermons, Aziz had advocated a strict division between men and women. His decision to try to escape under a burqa with a group of women struck many as cowardly.

"It's such a shameful act, and that's why all the ulema [religious scholars] and sympathizers of Red Mosque administrators are feeling so down today and ashamed," said Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman, leader of a coalition of far-right religious parties.

At a funeral in a poor village in western Pakistan, people were cursing Aziz. The funeral was held for Zakir Ullah, 18, a former student at the Red Mosque's madrassa who was killed in the violence this week.

"He was an innocent and peaceful boy who succumbed to the stupid policies of Red Mosque administrators," said his uncle, Murad Khan. "Those who were killed are innocent students who were there for getting Islamic education."

Special correspondents Shahzad Khurram in Islamabad and Imtiaz Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company