By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, July 11 -- A commando raid that was expected to be a quick operation to subdue Islamic radicals in the Red Mosque turned into a marathon battle Tuesday and Wednesday, with elite Pakistani forces sweeping through underground bunkers in more than 20 hours of intense combat.
Military officials said the fighting left at least eight commandos and 60 radicals dead -- including the firebrand cleric at the center of standoff -- but they also suggested the toll might ultimately prove far higher. Among the hundreds of people estimated to be in the mosque when the raid began, only 83 made it out alive, most of them women and children.
Authorities had released no information about the fate of the others as of Wednesday morning, and reporters were barred from visiting local hospitals. Many of the missing were believed to be civilians who had been held hostage.
The Pakistani government and the mosque's pro-Taliban leadership had been locked in a standoff for eight days after a street clash last Tuesday that left more than 20 people dead. Mosque leaders had been provoking the government for months by abducting alleged prostitutes and police officers, and by threatening music store owners. The mosque's clerics, a pair of brothers, said they wanted to create a theocracy in Pakistan based on Islamic law.
For months, President Pervez Musharraf has faced pressure to shut down the mosque, but his government resisted because of concerns that a raid could trigger outrage among religious hard-liners. On Tuesday, there was evidence that a backlash had already begun. In the North-West Frontier Province, bands of armed young men shut down a major highway, and religious leaders called for demonstrations elsewhere.
Pakistani officials acknowledged they had been surprised by the stiff resistance the commandos faced from the radicals, who used machine guns, rocket launchers, gasoline bombs and land mines to fend off the assault.
For much of Tuesday afternoon and into the evening, the elite commandos fought a subterranean war, feeling their way in the darkness through a nest of booby traps and ambushes as they chased militants through basements and tunnels. Fighting continued at the mosque after midnight.
"There's been a lot of resistance," said a military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad. "They're very well-armed, well-trained terrorists."
Among those confirmed dead was Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the firebrand cleric, who had said repeatedly during the standoff that he wanted to be a martyr. Ghazi was killed in the basement of the complex during a shootout between the commandos and several militants, after having given a series of final interviews to Pakistani TV stations in which he blamed the government for the failure of last-minute peace talks.
Government officials had said almost since the standoff began that raiding the mosque and ridding it of the radicals would be a relatively easy operation. They boasted they could do it in an hour or less, but wanted to get women and children out safely before launching an operation.
The raid -- code-named Operation Silence -- came just after dawn prayers Tuesday, with commandos assaulting the compound from three directions around 4 a.m. Only minutes earlier, a contingent of government-appointed negotiators had been hopeful that the conflict was about to end peacefully.
The negotiating team, which included religious leaders and government officials, had been sent in as part of a last-ditch effort to avoid a raid. Talking with Ghazi first by loudspeaker and then by cellphone, the two sides reached a draft agreement around midnight, and a top government official, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, was dispatched to Musharraf's house in the garrison city of Rawalpindi to discuss it.
He returned three hours later with a new offer that Musharraf said was final. The sticking points were whether Ghazi would be allowed to evade prosecution, and what would happen to foreign fighters believed to have been inside the mosque.
When Ghazi did not respond to the revised offer, the negotiating team left and the commandos swooped in.
"At the end, there was hope that we could save women and children," said Mufti Abdul Hameed Rabani, a member of the negotiating team. "But the government wanted to do the operation in a hurry."
Another religious leader who had been part of previous negotiations said the government was to blame for the failure of the talks and had made a hasty decision to conduct the raid, a decision it would later regret. "First it was one Red Mosque in Islamabad," said Maulana Abdul Majeed Hazarvi. "Now you will find Red Mosques everywhere."
A spokesman for the Interior Ministry, Brig. Javed Iqbal Cheema, denied that the government had cut off negotiations preemptively. "The government tried its level best to use every available means to resolve this through dialogue," he said. "There were positive signs and we were very hopeful. But then there was a total breakdown of the dialogue."
The first few hours of the operation produced intense exchanges of gunfire and window-rattling explosions. A thick plume of smoke rose over the mosque, and it appeared as though the radicals had been quickly vanquished when guns fell largely silent for several hours in the late morning.
But inside the compound, militants retreated deeper into the compound, virtually ceding the mosque to the government and massing instead in a warren of basement rooms at the girls' madrassa, where many women and children were being held hostage. Militants and commandos fought from room to room, occasionally hearing women's and children's cries as they "carefully" tried to flush out the militants, Arshad said.
Even beneath the basement, there was a network of tunnels that led between the various buildings in the compound, which takes up two city blocks and includes nearly a dozen structures.
The militants used the tunnels to move from the madrassa to the mosque and up into one of the minarets. Several commandos were shot after a militant fired from the minaret long after the commandos thought it had been cleared.
The Red Mosque standoff attracted round-the-clock coverage from Pakistan's various 24-hour news networks all week, and once the raid began, the government appeared determined not to let them broadcast images that might inflame the public. Reporters were kept far enough from the mosque that they couldn't capture images of the carnage.
By early Wednesday morning, the government could not produce a comprehensive figure of civilian casualties. However, officials struck a somber note as they spoke, and indicated that the death toll may be high.
Abdul Satar Edhi, leader of a human welfare charity, said the government had asked him to be prepared to provide supplies for 300 burials.
One major question left unanswered Wednesday morning was how the radicals had been able to build up such a massive arsenal. The mosque, only a few hundred yards from the president's house, is also close to the headquarters of Pakistan's main intelligence service. Despite its location, the mosque had become a well-defended fortress by the time commandos went in.
"Somebody has to answer for this," said retired Maj. Ikram Sehgal, a security analyst. "This cannot happen in the center of the capital of the country."
Special correspondents Shahzad Khurram in Islamabad and Imtiaz Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.