- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 28, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A suspected suicide bomber killed at least 13 persons at a hotel yesterday after hundreds of stone-throwing protesters clashed with police not far from the capital’s Red Mosque, reopened for the first time since a bloody army raid ousted pro-Taliban militants holed up there.

The blast, targeting police, was the latest in a string of militant revenge attacks and deepened the security crisis facing President Pervez Musharraf, a close U.S. ally.

The bombing comes on the back of almost daily suicide blasts in Pakistan’s restive northwestern frontier, where Gen. Musharraf is also under U.S. pressure to crack down on al Qaeda. More than 300 people have died in violence which began earlier this month with the siege of the Red Mosque.

Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema, who said the government had received intelligence about the Aabpara market bombing, blamed the mosque unrest for creating conditions in which an attacker could strike.

He said the mosque is now indefinitely closed.

Authorities had hoped to restore normalcy to the once-staid Pakistani capital by reopening the Red Mosque to the public more than two weeks after the commando raid dislodged militant supporters of its pro-Taliban clerics.

But religious students, angered by the government’s move to assign a cleric from another mosque to lead Friday prayers, staged protests inside the mosque compound and occupied it for several hours.

They daubed red paint onto the walls and dome to restore its namesake color after a government restoration left it pale yellow. They also put up a black flag with two crossed swords — meant to symbolize jihad, or holy war. Street battles then broke out between stone-throwing protesters and police using tear gas.

Soon after came a thunderous blast in an open-air restaurant at the Muzaffar Hotel, located in a crowded market district about a quarter-mile away from the mosque.

“It was a huge explosion,” said witness Mohammed Ali. “There were policemen sitting and standing at the restaurant, and the explosion occurred after someone came near them,” he said.

“A policeman got blown into the air and landed away from the blast site,” said another witness, Imtiaz Ahmed.

Khalid Pervez, Islamabad’s top administrator, said 13 persons were killed, including seven police, and 71 were wounded, mostly bystanders.

There was no claim of responsibility for the bombing, but Islamic militants are strongly suspected. It is the second major bombing to hit the city in 11 days. A July 17 suicide attack killed 16 persons at a planned rally for the country’s top judge.

Islamabad had been gradually recovering from the mosque siege that left at least 102 dead, although security forces are still deployed at sandbagged bunkers on street corners.

Authorities had repaired the blast-scorched interior of the mosque, its damaged minarets and the bullet-riddled roof over its entrance hall.

But hopes that reopening the mosque would cool public anger over the siege — amid lingering skepticism over the official death toll — were dashed.

Bearded religious students and other hard-liners who gathered for prayers soon began chanting anti-government slogans and took control of the mosque compound.

Musharraf is a dog. He is worse than a dog. He should resign,” students shouted.

They demanded the mosque’s former chief cleric, Maulana Abdul Aziz, be allowed to lead the prayers. Maulana Aziz was caught trying to escape the mosque compound during the siege wearing a woman’s burqa. He is currently in government detention.

The crowd also shouted the name of Maulana Aziz’s brother, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who led the siege until he was fatally shot by security forces after refusing to surrender. He had spearheaded a vigilante, Islamic anti-vice campaign that had challenged the government’s writ in the city.

Maulana Ashfaq Ahmed, the senior cleric whom the government had asked to lead the prayers, was quickly escorted from the mosque as protesters made angry gestures at him.

After the bombing, police retook control of the mosque, said Zafar Iqbal, the city police chief. Some protesters resisted and about 50 people were arrested, he said.



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