- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 31, 2007

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Pro-Taliban fighters seized an Islamic shrine in restive northwestern Pakistan and renamed it after the Red Mosque, where dozens of militants died this month in a showdown with government forces in the capital, officials said yesterday.

The attack drove home the lack of government control in the tribal region, where a local government official said authorities were trying to negotiate the militants’ peaceful departure from the shrine.

Three soldiers and four civilians died in other violence in the northwest, where President Pervez Musharraf is under growing pressure from Washington to crack down on the Taliban and al Qaeda.

U.S. officials have suggested unilateral military strikes in the tribal regions, but Pakistan once again strongly rejected the idea.

Pakistan will not allow any foreign forces to conduct activities inside its territory,” Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz told legislators yesterday, according to a government statement.

“The integrity and sovereignty of the country will be protected at all cost and no outside interference will be allowed,” Mr. Aziz said.

The government also criticized a bill that would tie development aid to Pakistan’s progress in fighting militancy.

About 70 pro-Taliban militants overran the shrine of renowned Pashtun freedom fighter Sahib Turangzai and its adjoining mosque in Mohmand tribal region late Sunday, a militant representative said.

They evicted the mosque’s caretakers, renamed it and declared their support for Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the deputy cleric of the Red Mosque, who had spearheaded an increasingly aggressive, Taliban-style anti-vice campaign in the capital.

Troops cracked down on the mosque and Mr. Ghazi was killed along with at least 101 other persons after a weeklong siege that ended July 12.

Nearly 200 people died in suicide bombings in the week after the Red Mosque siege.

In Mohmand, the militants vowed to set up a girls’ seminary at the site — reminiscent of the one in Islamabad where the anti-vice campaign was centered and that was demolished by authorities after the siege.

“We will ensure education here for students who were dispersed after the operation against Lal Masjid in Islamabad,” Khalid Omar, a man who claims to speak for the militants, said in telephone calls to journalists in Peshawar. Lal Masjid is the Pakistani name for the Red Mosque.

A government official in Mohmand, who sought anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists, confirmed the militants had taken control of the shrine. He said authorities have sought the help of tribal elders to get the militants to leave the area peacefully.

Meanwhile, at least three security officers and four civilians died in violence in North Waziristan, a tribal region where the army recently redeployed forces and set up checkpoints.

In reaction to the redeployment, militants pulled out of a September peace deal with the government and began a wave of attacks that killed dozens of people, mostly security forces.

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