- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 3, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Security forces clashed with militants today outside a radical mosque where students have carried out a string of kidnappings of police officers and purported prostitutes, killing at least five persons, officials said.

The battle marked a major escalation in a standoff at the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, whose clerics have challenged the military-led government by mounting a vigilante anti-vice campaign in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad.

Doctors at two hospitals said the five dead included two policemen, one soldier, a militant and a civilian. However, clerics at the mosque claimed that 10 of their supporters died, according to a lawmaker sent to mediate.

The trouble began when student followers of the mosque, including young men with guns and dozens of women wearing black burkas, rushed toward a nearby police checkpoint. Police and paramilitary soldiers fired tear gas, and as the students retreated, an Associated Press photographer saw at least four students, some of them masked, fire shots toward security forces.

Gunfire also was heard from the police position.

A man used the mosque’s loudspeakers to order suicide bombers to get into position. “They have attacked our mosque; the time for sacrifice has come,” the speaker said.

The students later pelted two government buildings, including the Ministry of Environment, with rocks and set them ablaze, and they torched a dozen cars in the ministry’s lot.

Hours after the clashes, dozens of students were patrolling the area around the mosque, some carrying gas masks, gasoline-filled bottles and Molotov cocktails. About a dozen were armed with guns, including AK-47 assault rifles.

Security forces cordoned off the area with barbed wire and checkpoints and continued to fire tear gas at demonstrators from a distance. Shops in the area were shuttered.

At loggerheads with authorities over a land dispute, clerics from the mosque in January sent female seminary students to occupy a municipal children’s library. They further raised the stakes by kidnapping a Pakistani woman they accused of running a brothel and holding her for three days in what they said was an attempt to impose a harsh interpretation of Islamic law, or Shariah.

Last month, they seized seven policemen to press for the release of students detained by authorities for threatening the owners of music stores. The officers were released after authorities brought thousands of police into the capital.

President Pervez Musharraf said last week that he was ready to raid the mosque, but he warned that suicide bombers from a militant group linked to al Qaeda had slipped into the facility.

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