Viewing conflicts through the eye of Counterinsurgency COIN – Since 2007
By MUNIR AHMED, Associated Press Writer
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Security forces besieging a radical mosque in the Pakistani capital captured its top cleric Wednesday as he tried to sneak out of the complex in a woman’s burqa, and more than 1,000 of his followers surrendered.
Pakistani female religious students surrender before a soldier of the paramilitary force, and female police officers Wednesday, July 4, 2007 in Islamabad, Pakistan. Armed militants holed up at a radical mosque in the Pakistani capital must surrender or face punitive action from security forces, a government minister warned, a day after gun battles left at least nine people dead. (Photo/Anjum Naveed)
President Gen. Pervez Musharraf deployed the army to subdue the remaining militants holed up in Islamabad’s Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, whose clerics have boldly challenged the government for months with a drive to impose a Taliban-style version of Islamic law in the city.
The peaceful arrest of the mosque’s prayer leader, Maulana Abdul Aziz, was a coup for the government. The firebrand Aziz has been a vociferous opponent of Musharraf and has threatened suicide attacks to defend the mosque. His thousands of male students have been at the forefront of anti-government and anti-U.S. rallies in Islamabad.
However, with heavy gunfire continuing into the night, it was unclear whether his capture will end the violent showdown at the mosque or if militant hard-liners will fight on without him.
The tensions between the government and the mosque exploded into a daylong battle Tuesday between security forces and students — some of whom were heavily armed and masked. Sixteen people were killed, officials said.
The government ordered the militants to lay down their arms and surrender by Wednesday morning, as it positioned armored vehicles and helicopters around the mosque in a show of strength.
A security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said authorities captured the mosque’s top cleric, Maulana Abdul Aziz, after a female police officer tried to search his body, which was concealed by a full-length black burqa.
The officer began shouting “This is not a woman,” the official said, prompting male officers to seize him. “The suspect later turned out to be the mosque’s chief cleric,” the official said.
An AP Television News cameraman saw plainclothes police bundling the gray-bearded cleric into the back of a car, which sped away.
Javed Iqbal Cheeman, an Interior Ministry official, said Aziz’s wife, the principal of the madrassa, was also arrested.
“The entire operation will end in further success, and we will be able to give you and the nation more good news,” Deputy Interior Minister Zafar Iqbal Warriach said.
He said the whereabouts of the mosque’s deputy leader, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who is Aziz’s brother, were unclear. Ghazi said earlier Wednesday that “we will continue to defend ourselves.”
Cheema said at least 1,100 people had surrendered during the day, with some of the women in tears. All women and children will be granted amnesty, but males involved in killings as well as top mosque leaders will face legal action, said Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim.
Cheema claimed that “not many more” people were left inside the mosque complex. However, it was unclear how many of those were militants.
One who decided to give up, 15-year-old Maryam Qayyeum, said those who stayed in the seminary “only want martyrdom.”
“They are happy,” she said. “They don’t want to go home.”
Qayyeum said mosque leaders were not trying to stop students from giving up. But her mother, who had come to take her home said, “They are making speeches. They want to incite them.”
The violence started Tuesday when male and female student followers of the mosque — some of them masked and armed — rushed toward a police checkpoint. Gunfire broke out among the students and security forces, sparking a daylong series of clashes.
A senior government spokesman, Anwar Mahmood, said 16 people were killed Tuesday, though he declined to give a breakdown of the victims. Earlier, the government said they had included militants, innocent bystanders, a journalist and members of the security forces.
Ghazi told The Associated Press that 20 of his students had been killed by security forces, including two young men climbing to the top of the mosque for morning prayers Wednesday.
A young woman was also shot and wounded on the roof of the women’s seminary, he said. “She was shot by sniper fire. They are shooting directly at us,” he said in a telephone interview.
After a meeting of top officials that included Musharraf, Warriach said the government imposed an immediate curfew on the area. He said authorities had run out of patience after a six-month standoff with the hard-line clerics at the mosque.
“The government has decided that those people from the madrassa who are defaming Pakistan and Islam will face an operation,” Warriach said.
In the past six months, the clerics have challenged the government by sending students from the mosque to kidnap alleged prostitutes and police in an anti-vice campaign.
The bloodshed has added to a sense of crisis in Pakistan, where Musharraf — a major ally of President Bush — already faces emboldened militants near the Afghan border and a pro-democracy movement triggered by his botched attempt to fire the country’s chief justice.
The mosque siege sparked street protests Tuesday in the cities of Lahore and Quetta organized by radical religious parties.
On Wednesday, officials said a suicide car bomber rammed a vehicle into a Pakistan army convoy near the Afghan border, killing five soldiers and five civilians. In northwestern Pakistan, unidentified assailants fired a rocket at a police station, killing one officer and wounding four, and an explosive killed four people and injured two district officials.
It was not known if the incidents were linked to the mosque crisis.