AL-QAEDA’S leadership secretly directed the Islamic militants whose armed revolt at the Red Mosque in Islamabad ended last week with more than 100 deaths after it was stormed by the Pakistan army.
According to senior intelligence officials, the troops who finally took control discovered letters from Osama Bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. They were written to Abdul Rashid Ghazi and Abdul Aziz, the brothers who ran the mosque and adjacent madrasah.
Government sources said up to 18 foreign fighters including Uzbeks, Egyptians and several Afghans had arrived weeks before the final shootout and set up firing ranges to teach students, including children, how to handle weapons.
Al-Qaeda has wanted to open a Pakistan front in its global jihad since President Pervez Musharraf sided with America after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Diplomats were surprised by the speed with which the fugitive Zawahiri condemned the raid and called on Pakistanis to rise up against Musharraf.
The response to his appeal was equally swift. Twenty-seven soldiers were killed when a suicide attacker struck a military convoy in northwest Pakistan near the Afghan border yesterday. At least 58 have been killed in bombings and shootings since the Red Mosque crisis began 12 days ago.
This weekend street protests were organised by religious parties as the government dispatched thousands more soldiers to its troubled North West Frontier province.
Some were sent to the Swat Valley, where a suicide car bomber killed three policemen last Thursday and a madrasah controlled by Maulana Fazlullah, a militant mullah, is expected to be the next flashpoint. Fazlullah has been using a radio station to rally support for Al-Qaeda and has urged followers to arm themselves in preparation for a siege.
Ministers blamed the presence of foreign fighters for the breakdown of negotiations at the Red Mosque just as they seemed about to reach a deal to end the standoff peacefully.
According to government sources and western diplomats, Al-Qaeda sought martyrdom instead. “They wanted a poster boy for Pakistan and Ghazi was the perfect guy,”? said one western diplomat.
Ghazi was shot dead in the army’s final assault on the mosque a week after his older brother tried to escape disguised in a burqa.
Musharraf’s use of overwhelming force to defeat the militants was welcomed not only by international allies in the war on terror but by Pakistan’s urban middle classes. Advisers were weighing up whether his declaration of war on militants, could be turned to political advantage.
His presidential term expires in September and he must decide whether to seek reappointment by the current parliament or call early parliamentary elections with the aim of securing a fresh mandate.
Diplomats believe an initial surge of support may already be fading, however, as concern grows over the number of women and children killed in the Red Mosque.
Ministers denied at first that any had died but the army has since admitted 19 bodies were “beyond recognition”?. “They could be anybody, any age,”? a spokesman said.
Although the interior ministry confirmed later that up to 25 women and children had been killed in the mosque, survivors suggested that the toll could be considerably higher.
Asma Hayat, 15, said she had seen several classmates shot and had been told of 15 other girls killed. She claimed she had seen “dozens”? of 12 and 13-year-old boys dead, insisting: “Their faces were recognisable.”?
According to Asma, she was handing out water to children affected by tear gas near the main gate when her friend Nasmeen, 17, was shot in the side.
When she went to help her, Nasmeen pushed her away, saying: “It feels good, it’s martyrdom.”? She was taken away for treatment, but her father called a few days later to say she had died.
Bilal Sabir Khan, 11, claimed one of his friends had been shot in the foot and he saw “many martyrs and injured students on the roof of the library and the lawn in front of the mosque”?.
At the Jinnah stadium, where more than 100 distraught relatives waited to learn the fate of their children, charity workers posted the names of those admitted to hospitals and morgues.
Mattiullah Khan, 50, said he had not spoken to his 16-year-old nephew Mohammed Yusuf since the previous week, when the boy had said he wanted to escape. “He didn’t want to be a martyr,”? his uncle said.
The lists of injured, dead and detained told their own story of panic and terror. Among those held in Adyala jail were a six-year-old boy, with two nine-year-olds for company.
There were 23 names on the list of confirmed dead, many of them aged 15 and 16. At the Federal Government Services hospital, 34 girls under 16 were treated for tear gas inhalation, including a six-year-old, four girls of eight, and many more younger than 12.
Hamid Gul, a former head of Pakistan’s ISI intelligence service, said statistics like these, and the stories of dead and injured children, could drive Musharraf from power. “The government is trying to hide the number of young girls killed,”? he claimed. “As the truth comes out that young girls were gassed and burnt, riddled with bullets and killed, it’ll be bad for Musharraf.”?