Friday, July 6, 2007

Islamabad: 19 Dead In Mosque Standoff; Hundreds Still Inside

[Musharraf escapes assassination attempt! see updates below]

Pakistan's simmering Red Mosque (Lal Masjid) crisis has come to a bloody boil; 19 people have been killed and several hundred more are still inside the besieged mosque, according to reports from Islamabad.

This post contains excerpts from reports published by the New York Times, Washington Post, Reuters, ABC News, the BBC, and Pakistan's Dawn. Click the links and/or check this page for more details.

WaPo : Pakistan Launches Operation Against Radicals in Mosque
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.
BBC : Pakistan head orders mosque pause
On Thursday, the deputy leader of the mosque he and hundreds of his militant followers were ready to surrender.

Ghazi Abdul Rashid said they would lay down their arms if the security forces ceased firing and did not arrest them.

But the conditions were dismissed by Pakistani government ministers.
Reuters : Pakistan rejects radical cleric's surrender terms
The government said the attempt to attach demands, including safe passage, was unacceptable and insisted cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi release women and children being held as human shields.

Violence erupted outside the Red Mosque, or Lal Masjid, in the capital on Tuesday after months of rising tension between the authorities and the mosque's Taliban-supporting clerics and their thousands of religious student followers.

Hundreds of troops and police are surrounding the fortified mosque in a leafy central Islamabad neighborhood.

There was intermittent gunfire and explosions on Thursday and early on Friday. Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema said troops had blasted some holes in the compound walls.

The government has ordered the students to surrender and about 1,200 of them have come out. But resistance from those inside, who authorities say include militants from banned groups armed with rifles and grenades, was stiff.
NYT : Hints of Surrender at Mosque in Pakistan
The government kept up its pressure on the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, demanding the unconditional surrender of the estimated 400 to 500 people still inside, as many as half of them female students and teachers. Army and police commandos have surrounded the complex and barred access since heavy clashes with armed followers on Tuesday.

Several times during the day and evening helicopters circled overhead, and the security forces exchanged fire with the militants inside the mosque in half-hour bursts of heavy gunfire and explosions. Then, each time the guns fell silent, the troops used loudspeakers to call on those inside to surrender, assuring them safe passage.

Yet government officials conceded that despite some success on Wednesday — when more than 1,100 students surrendered and one leader of the uprising was arrested while trying to escape dressed in a burqa — security forces were now locked in a standoff with the militants, who are intent on imposing Islamic law throughout the country.
More students emerged from the mosque on Thursday, but the interior minister, Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao, said there were still up to 60 armed militants inside who were preventing others from leaving.

“There are 50 to 60 hard-core militants with automatic weapons, grenades and petrol bombs, which they have used,” he said at a news briefing here in the capital. “They are the ones who have stopped the women and children from coming out. The majority want to leave.”

“The government is exercising maximum restraint because there are women and children inside, and we don’t want any harm to them,” he added. “The restraint is on the special orders of the president. We have to be patient and wait.”
Dawn : Restraint in dealing with Lal Masjid crisis lauded
The United States said on Thursday that the government of Pakistan had displayed ‘exceptional restraint’ in dealing with the Lal Masjid crisis. In its second statement on the situation in three days, the US State Department said the government’s action against militants hiding inside the Lal Masjid complex was “domestic security issue” of Pakistan and hoped for a peaceful resolution.

“We are following the situation closely and hope for a peaceful resolution to this affair,” the statement said.

“The government of Pakistan has demonstrated exceptional restraint in dealing with this situation to date,” the State Department said.

“We hope that those who continue to resist will choose to cooperate with the government, and express themselves peacefully, so that further violence can be avoided.”
NYT : Pakistanis Capture Cleric in Mosque Rebellion
By Wednesday, the tide of popular feeling seemed to be turning against the clerics. Relatives of students who attended separate male and female schools inside the mosque compound said they had not been aware of the presence of weapons in the complex.

But most said both the clerics and the government shared blame for the bloodshed on Tuesday. “We sent our daughters for education, not terrorism,” said Kastabar Ali, 48, a taxi driver whose two nieces were still inside the seminary.

For most of the day, the clerics refused to surrender and were sending mixed signals by asking for more time, officials said. “The two clerics remain defiant so far, and we haven’t received any flexibility from their side,” Mr. Cheema, the government spokesman, said Wednesday evening, minutes before news of Maulana Abdul Aziz’s arrest. “Having said that, I would only say they have no option but to surrender.”
He and other officials said the government was determined to avoid further violence. By midmorning, after another man was shot dead near the mosque overnight, Pakistani Army Rangers in combat gear cordoned off the area with barbed wire.

Security forces then announced over a loudspeaker that the government was offering students 5,000 rupees, about $82, and alternative education in government madrasas if they left the complex.

“We ensure no action against women and children and those who were not involved in any unlawful activity and promise them a safe passage and 5,000 rupees each by President Pervez Musharraf as expenses for traveling to their homes,” the minister of state for information and broadcasting, Tariq Azim Khan, said at a news conference in the morning.

“We do not want bloodshed,” he said. “We have repeatedly supported a peaceful resolution to the problem.”
Dawn : Besieged cleric seeks safe passage
As a battle of nerves between heavily-armed security forces and militants holed up in the Lal-Masjid-Jamia Hafsa complex lingered for the third day, desertions by the Madressah students continued. However, late-night statements by cleric Maulana Abdul Rasheed Ghazi, seeking safe passage, indicated that the six-month-old saga was nearing end.

It was yet another day of high tension and drama in and around Lal Masjid, with repeated exchanges of fire, terrorising the militants with the deafening fire by dummy motors and almost continuous hovering of cobra helicopters to create an impression that a full-fledged operation was about to be launched.
While bouts of intense tear-gassing continued in phases throughout the day, at one stage the security troops carried out controlled explosions to create a number of breaches in the outer wall of the mosque-madressah complex, including one 14-foot breach, which was the first clear indication that the option of storming the building was being seriously contemplated.

Senior officials of Pakistan Rangers and interior ministry said that even though they had flatly rejected Maulana Ghazi’s terms for surrender, including his request for safe passage, they were still delaying the storming of the complex in order to allow parents of some of the trapped students to use their influence to get their loved ones out. Some of them did succeed in the attempt and several women and men came out voluntarily.

However, the real action during the day was an attempt by several hardcore militants to escape. All of them were captured.
[ UPDATE 1: July 6, 9:45AM ET ]

ABC : Pakistani Militants Snub Surrender Call
The head of a radical mosque besieged by government forces in the heart of Pakistan's capital rejected calls for an unconditional surrender Friday, saying he and his die-hard followers were ready for martyrdom.

As the siege of the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, entered the third day, troops rocked the complex with gunfire and explosions but appeared to be holding back from a potentially bloody final assault.

"We will not surrender. We will be martyred, but we will not surrender," Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the mosque's senior cleric, told GEO television, a private channel. "We are more determined now."

The government was keen to avoid a bloodbath that would further damage President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's embattled administration and said troops would not storm the mosque while women and children were inside.
[UPDATE 2: 11:10 AM ET]

Dawn: President Musharraf’s plane fired on: intelligence official
ISLAMABAD, July 6 (AFP) Gunmen fired on President Pervez Musharraf's plane using an improvised anti-aircraft gun after it took off from a military airbase Friday, intelligence officials said.

The president was unharmed and the shots did not hit the aircraft, the officials said requesting anonymity. “It was an unsuccessful attempt to shoot the president's plane,” one official told AFP.

Pervez Musharraf flew from the Chaklala military base in Rawalpindi to the southern provinces of Sindh and Baluchistan to visit people affected by recent floods, the military said in a statement.

Pakistani military spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad denied that the shots had targeted President Musharraf's plane. “It was not related to the president,” he told AFP. But intelligence officials dealing directly with the incident insisted Musharraf's plane was the target.

Security forces arrested a suspect and recovered the weapon and a crudely-made wooden tripod from the flat roof of a house in Rawalpindi, a security official said. “The shots were fired from a house that was rented by a couple some days ago.

They have arrested one suspect and taken into possession a machinegun which was used as an anti-aircraft weapon,” one security official said. “The man and woman who rented the house fled by the time security forces got to the scene. The suspect (a third person) was arrested near the scene,” he said.
[UPDATES from Dawn]

17 students come out of Lal Masjid on Friday
ISLAMABAD, July 6 (APP) Around 17 students including five female students, came out of Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa premises Friday during a break in exchange of fire between security forces and Jamia Hafsa squad.

So far, 1,221 religious students out which 426 are female, have walked out of the Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa and surrendered before the security forces.

Meanwhile, cross firing between security forces and students of Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa resumed at 5:45 p.m.
Blasts, gunfire hit besieged Lal Masjid as militants ignore surrender plea
ISLAMABAD, July 6 (AP) Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi besieged by government forces in Islamabad’s Lal Masjid rejected calls for an unconditional surrender Friday, saying he and his followers were ready for martyrdom. As the siege of the Lal Masjid entered the third day, troops rocked the complex with gunfire and explosions but appeared to be holding back from a potentially bloody final assault.

"We will not surrender. We will be martyred, but we will not surrender," Abdul Rashid Ghazi told a television channel. "We are more determined now."

"For the Pakistan army to go in is no problem, but safety is our foremost objective," government spokesman Tariq Azim said. "We don't want to harm any innocent lives. We already know that these people are being kept as hostages."

Two dozen parents and other family members waited anxiously Friday behind security barriers some 200 meters from the mosque, with about 10 allowed to approach the shrine's entrance. During lulls in the fighting, some parents approached the mosque, handed notes to those inside with the names of their children, who then emerged.

More than 1,000 have fled the complex. Authorities relaxed a curfew imposed around the mosque for a few hours Friday so that residents could buy supplies and check on relatives. Gunfire rang out around the mosque before dawn and again later Friday morning.

Armed troops and barbed wire coils on the streets near the mosque prevented journalists from going near the scene. There were no immediate reports of injuries and it was not possible to determine who initiated the latest bout of shooting.

Azim told Dawn News television that soldiers had blasted holes in walls of the mosque "so that if they bolted the door, to at least give a chance to people to be able to escape through those holes."
Large blasts and gunfire rock Lal Masjid
ISLAMABAD, July 6 (AFP) Two heavy blasts and gunfire rocked Islamabad’s Lal Masjid Friday evening, as a dense cloud of smoke rose over the building in the latest clashes, AFP correspondents said.

Armoured personnel carriers and troops on foot were seen moving towards the complex, although officials denied that forces were finally launching a raid on the compound.

Television footage showed large chunks of debris, believed to be part of the mosque's perimeter wall, blown high above the surrounding treetops after one of the blasts.

A senior security official involved in the operation said militant students had exchanged automatic weapons fire with troops and thrown several hand grenades.
Bilquees Edhi’s offer not responded to by Lal Masjid administration
ISLAMABAD, July 6 (APP) Eminent social worker Bilquees Edhi Friday offered the Lal Masjid administration to hand over held up female students to her organization for safe return to their families but this was not responded by the mosque administration.

“I have made six announcements from a close position through loudspeaker, but no response has so far come from the mosque”, Bilquees told a private television channel. She said she got the permission from the concerned quarters in this connection, but it has not been responded so far from inside the mosque.

She said that Abdul Rashid Ghazi will have many opportunities to serve the cause of Islam in his life but keeping the innocent children in such a tense situation is by no way a service to Islam. She urged him to show flexibility in his attitude so that the innocent people could be evacuated from the high risk place.
U.S. repeats support for Pervez Musharraf
WASHINGTON, July 6 (AP) The United States Friday repeated its support for President Pervez Musharraf as turmoil continued in Pakistan. State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters that Pervez Musharraf is working hard to address extremism and to build a moderate Islamic state in Pakistan.

"I certainly don't see anything in the current set of circumstances that changes our overall evaluation about him or about the government," Casey said.

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