Pakistan military storm mosque after negotiations fail

Posted in Broader Middle East | 10-Jul-07 | Author: Carlotta Gall and Salman Masoo| Source: International Herald Tribune

A Pakistan armored vehicle moves toward the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque in Islamabad.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan: The Pakistani military stormed a mosque complex early Tuesday where Islamic militants and students have been holed up since last week, military officials said.

Major General Waheed Arshad, a military spokesman, told reporters that three security personnel had been killed and 15 injured, and that at least 40 militants were dead. He said troops were trying to clear the mosque compound area by area, but that "there's still a significant amount of area left to be cleared."

General Arshad spoke at about 9 a.m. local time, more than four hours after the operation at the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, began. He said the militants had engaged security forces in intense fighting, and that they were using rocket launchers, machine guns and grenades. Portions of the compound were booby-trapped, he said, adding that the militants were using "the minarets to fire on security forces."

"They are well-armed and fully prepared," he said.

Loud explosions could be heard across the city, indicating that the commandos were trying to blast through walls.

It was unclear whether any of the students inside the compound had been injured or killed. Officials said that about 20 children had escaped from the mosque as the assault unfolded.

Military officials told reporters that commandos had entered the women's religious school inside the complex and took positions on the roof. The women's school is called Jamia Hafsa, and some of the women students had been reported to be inside, while most of the male students and armed militants were concentrated in the mosque itself.

Ambulances could be seen trickling out of the mosque grounds on Tuesday morning, near to where a dozen family members of students had gathered, waiting for news.

The whereabouts of Abdur Rashid Ghazi, the leader of the mosque, were also unknown. He called into local television stations throughout the morning, saying he did not trust government negotiators who had arrived at the perimenter of the complex Monday night, before the military operation began. In one interview, he lamented that Pakistan used to have a "mujahedeen army" but that now "I don't trust them."

The attempt at a negotiated settlement was a sharp turnaround in tactics for the government, after six days of gun battles and ultimatums demanding unconditional surrender.

The delegation was authorized by the president of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf, and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz as a last-ditch effort to end the siege and release the students and some of their family members who are being held inside as hostages, government officials said. Under discussion was a face-saving option that would allow Ghazi, the militants' leader, to surrender himself and all the weapons inside the mosque to senior clerics, two senior officials said.

The negotiating team did not enter the mosque, but talked with the militants by cellphone and loudspeaker as they waited outside.

Until Tuesday's assault, at least 24 people had been reported killed since gunfire broke out July 3, and scores, perhaps hundreds of students, teachers and militants remain inside the mosque grounds. The siege began after mosque leaders used students to press for Islamic law in Pakistan.

The delegation was led by Chaudhry Shujat Hussain, who is the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League, the governing party. It included 12 clerics led by Mufti Rafi Usmani, the highest-ranking cleric of Pakistan. It also included Abdul Sattar Edhi, Pakistan's best-known humanitarian figure, and Sumaira Malik, the minister for women's development.

"The main point is that the people being held inside should be let go," said Muhammad Ali Durrani, the Pakistani information minister.

At 11:30 p.m. on Monday, after four hours of talks, the delegation left its position outside the mosque and headed back to the army office of Musharraf in Rawalpindi to brief him on the negotiations, local news channels reported.

It was not clear why the government changed its tactics after demanding the unconditional surrender of the militants for days, and after the death on Sunday of a Pakistani Army officer who was leading an operation at the mosque. It may reflect concern for the public backlash as the militants' attitude has hardened, and the danger of civilian casualties and damage to the holy site of a mosque.

There was also growing concern among government officials that the longer the siege lasts, the greater the danger of militants around the country intensifying their attacks. The Supreme Court also became involved as it considered several pleas regarding the standoff at the mosque complex, and it called on the government to allow the clerics to meet with Ghazi.

"Our strategy is to save the maximum number of lives, especially of females and children," the interior minister, Aftab Khan Sherpao, said Monday. "Some clerics had expressed their wish and they are being given an opportunity. We want them to use their influence. We want to exhaust all options."