Cleric Claims 70 Killed, Musharraf Warns "Surrender Or Die"
20,000 Taliban Tribesmen Vow Revenge
Now into its seventh day, the siege of the Red Mosque in Islamabad, within walking distance of Pakistan President Musharraf's office and palace, has all the makings of an international incident, bound to inflame Islamist sentiment across the globe.
More than 1800 students and teachers are believed to be holed in the fortress-like mosque, in the heart of the nation's capital, surrounded by troops. But the lead cleric claims he has enough food, weapons and ammunition to stay inside, with his followers, and hostages, for at least one month.
Because President Musharraf held back from storming the mosque, he won international praise for showing restraint, until he issued a statement that said the Islamists must "surrender or die." But Musharraf knew that if he had allowed his troops to storm the mosque, it would have likely sparked an Islamic uprising against his military dictatorship.
Now some 20,000 Taliban aligned tribesmen how vowed revenge on Musharraf for laying siege to the mosque in the first place, as the stand-off looks set to spark wider conflict :
“We are ready for jihad!” cried the protesters - some of them armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers - who rallied near Khar, the main town in the troubled Bajaur tribal district bordering Afghanistan.Yesterday, Musharraf's troops blew a hole in the wall of the mosque, supposedly to allow women and children trapped inside to escape. But when troops entered the grounds, more than 100 armed students reportedly opened fire, killing a lieutenant-colonel.
Local pro-Taliban commanders told the gathering that there should be a holy war in return for the standoff at the Red Mosque.
The confrontation has so far left at least 24 people dead, according to the government, but the mosque's leaders say more than 400 students have been killed.
“We beg Allah to destroy Musharraf and we will seek revenge for the atrocities committed at the Red Mosque,” militant commander Maulvi Faqir Mohammed told the gathering.
Mohammed had links to a hardline madrassa, or Islamic school, that was bombed by Pakistani forces in October 2006, killing around 80 people.
Another mujahedin commander, Inayat-ur Rehman, told the tribesmen: “You must all get training for jihad because it is binding on every Muslim, just like prayers and fasting.”
Militants blew up a security vehicle in Bajaur early yesterday, killing a policeman, and kidnapped four others in a separate attack.
From the UK Independent :
In a statement carried yesterday by newspapers in Pakistan, the radical cleric holed inside the building, Abdul Rashid Ghazi...said that he would prefer martyrdom to surrender. "We have firm belief in God that our blood will lead to a revolution," he said.
Mr Musharraf, facing considerable political pressures unrelated to the stand-off at the mosque, is desperate to avoid not only making martyrs of Mr Ghazi, but also upsetting religious fundamentalists in the country, whose support he courts. As a result, for all the government's rhetoric, its options are limited.
"So long as there are people inside who are holding innocent children and women hostages, we have to be very careful. If we wanted to barge in guns blazing, we could have done it on day one," said the government's information minister, Tariq Azim. Speaking to Dawn TV, he added: "We will have to play this wait game. It may take a while, but I think we will succeed in the end."
Some locals are talking to friends and relatives inside the mosque complex, and reports claim that up to 250 people are not being allowed to leave, in effect they're being held hostage. Students trying to flee have been reportedly shot dead by other students.
Students as young as 14 years old have received training in the use of heavy automatic
weapons and have vowed to stand and fight should the Pakistan special forces units try to storm the mosque.
The mosque's radical clerics want to impose Taliban-style rule in Islamabad, and last week supporters outside the mosque attacked CD and DVD stores, trashing and burning.American media, like the New York Times, claim that the mosque's mullahs mission to impose Sharia law is deeply unpopular with Islamabad residents, and they've found little support across the country :
There is widespread debate inside and outside Pakistan about whether the siege of the Red Mosque is a boon or a curse for Musharraf, who maintains a majority of support, but is being pressured by international democracy advocates to hold more free and open elections. But others claim that Musharraf will lose any such election, even if the Red Mosque siege ends without further bloodshed, and Islamists may make up the majority of Pakistan's next government.
The arrest of the leader of the mosque, Maulana Abdul Aziz, who tried to escape in a burqa while leaving behind hundreds of his students, many of them female, has brought ridicule in the news media, which have largely supported the government. Neither the public nor the religious parties have protested the actions of the government, which has won praise for its relative restraint.
But the standoff is far from over, and several bombings in the North-West Frontier Province this week, including a suicide bombing, and gunfire as the president’s plane took off Friday, are a reminder that the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, is only the most visible bulwark of Islamist militancy that is lodged in cities and districts across Pakistan and appears to be growing.
An investigation published Friday by The News, a national daily, found that 88 seminaries belonging to various sects were giving religious education to more than 16,000 students in the capital. Moreover, the number of students here attending religious schools belonging to the Deobandi sect, an anti-Western, pro-jihadi fundamentalist school of thought that inspired the Taliban, among other movements, has doubled in the last year alone.
The newspaper cited figures for students taking exams, using information collected from unidentified government agencies. In 2006, 5,039 students from Deobandi seminaries took exams conducted by the sect’s central examination board, with about 3,000 of them coming from the two seminaries attached to the Lal Masjid.
Today those two seminaries hold 10,700 students, the report said. “The reason for this big surge in the number of students is still not known to the government,” it said.
The number of students at the Lal Masjid’s two madrasas, or religious schools — 5,039 — is not far short of the total in the whole province of Baluchistan. It also is almost equal to the number of students in the 74 schools belonging to other sects in the capital, which together have 5,400 students.
Considering Pakistan has an arsenal of nuclear weapons, an Islamist government seizing control of the military seems an unlikely scenario, when the United States and the UK have fiercely opposed Islamist rule in countries like Somalia. Should Musharraf at any stage appear to be on the verge of being deposed, American special forces would enter Pakistan and lock down all known nuclear weapons. At least, they would surely attempt to.
As the siege continues, Musharraf knows he cannot allow the clerics of the Red Mosque, and their supporters, to become martyrs, even though they are committed to this fate, if Musharraf refuses to negotiate an outcome which means they can all return, unharmed, unmolested, to their homes.
In the provinces near the Afghanistan border, Musharraf's government forces regularly clash with tribesmen who support the Taliban. In the past two days, there were at least two suicide bombings against government forces convoys.
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