ISLAMABAD (AFP) – Pakistan clamped a curfew around a radical Islamabad mosque Wednesday and warned that armed violators would be shot, after 12 people died in gun battles between pro-Taliban students and security forces.
Armoured personnel carriers and truckloads of troops massed in the darkness around the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, as loudspeaker announcements urged the compound’s hardline leaders to surrender or face action.
The clashes on Tuesday in the heart of the leafy capital followed months of tension over the mosque’s challenges to President Pervez Musharraf, the most recent being the kidnapping of seven Chinese as part of an anti-vice campaign.
The shooting victims included a soldier, a journalist, at least four students and some bystanders. Clerics warned of possible revenge suicide attacks and pledged to continue their drive to make Pakistan an Islamic state.
“Those who surrender will not be harmed. If anybody comes out with arms, he will face bullets,” deputy interior minister Zafar Warriach told reporters as he announced the curfew.
Electricity to the area immediately around the complex was cut during the night.
Officials said Musharraf — already facing a crisis over his suspension of Pakistan’s top judge — and several key ministers decided at a late-night crisis meeting to launch a raid if the clerics fail to meet strict conditions.
“This is an important decision, it may become a historic decision. The government has decided to take action against people who are harming the image of the country and Islam,” Warriach added.
Security officials said some Afghan Taliban commanders were believed to among the 1,500 people holed up inside the mosque and its affiliated religious schools. Thousands more have slipped away over the past few days, they said.
The government said the violence began when baton-wielding male and burqa-clad female students attacked policemen near the mosque, stealing four guns and a radio and prompting police to fire tear gas.
As people fled from two nearby shopping areas, students wearing gas masks traded sporadic Kalashnikov and pistol fire with security forces from behind sandbags and bunkers for several hours, an AFP correspondent said.
Students later set fire to the nearby environment ministry and another government building.
A loudspeaker announcement from the mosque as night fell warned of impending suicide attacks.
“The blood of the martyrs will not go to waste. We are ready for suicide attacks,” the unidentified mullah’s voice said. “Our holy war will continue until sharia (Islamic law) is enforced throughout the country.”
The mosque’s stated goal is to turn Pakistan into an Islamic state like the one installed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, which lasted from 1996 until the US-led invasion in 2001.
One of the two brothers who runs the mosque, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, said students retaliated after security forces opened fire, adding that the government “wants to see dead bodies scattered on the roads.”
Military ruler Musharraf, a key US ally, has faced mounting criticism over his failure to crack down on the mosque. He said last week that suicide bombers from an Al-Qaeda-linked militant group were sheltering in it.
But he has held off largely for fear of causing casualties among the thousands of students — especially the women, who mostly hail from Taliban-sympathising areas along the Afghan border.
Several mothers of women studying at the mosque said late Tuesday they had been prevented from getting the girls out of the compound or from speaking to them on the telephone.
Thousands of Islamic students protested in several northwestern towns and the southwestern city of Quetta Tuesday against the bloodshed.
The Red Mosque has been monitored by security personnel since its students took over a government-run children’s library in January.
In April it set up an Islamic court that imposed a “fatwa” on the then-tourism minister after she was pictured hugging a foreign parachuting instructor.