- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 4, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The tension long brewing around a radical mosque in Pakistan’s capital yesterday burst into street battles between security forces and masked militants who challenged the government by mounting a vigilante campaign against vice.

At least nine persons were killed and scores wounded in the clash, which underlined concern about the spread of extremism in a country struggling to combat Taliban and al Qaeda militants.

Early today Pakistan clamped a curfew around the mosque and warned that armed violators would be shot.

Armored 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 violence dramatically deepens a six-month standoff at the mosque, whose male and female students have kidnapped women at massage parlors and police officers in their efforts to impose a Taliban-style version of Islamic law on the capital.

At one point, 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 announcer said.

Deputy Interior Minister Zafar Warriach said yesterday’s dead included four students, three civilians, one soldier and a journalist. However, clerics at the mosque said that 10 of their supporters had died, according to a lawmaker sent to mediate the dispute.

The deputy minister said 148 persons were injured, most of them by tear gas fired by security forces.

By nightfall, the city’s top security official, Khalid Pervez, said a cease-fire had been reached with the militants. But Mr. Warriach said the government was “considering all options” when asked what steps would be taken to defuse the powder keg.

Officials said the unrest began yesterday morning when police tried to stop militant students from occupying a government building.

Reporters saw dozens of students, including young masked men with guns and black-robed women with long poles, moving toward security forces deployed about 200 yards from the red-walled, white-domed mosque.

Police shot tear gas and several male students responded by opening fire. Gunfire was also heard from the police position.

Men brandishing assault rifles, pistols and Molotov cocktails, some of them wearing gas masks, then gathered around the mosque, while security forces cordoned off the area with barbed wire and checkpoints and lobbed tear gas canisters at the demonstrators.

Despite a call for suicide attacks, no such attacks were reported.

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

Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the mosque’s deputy leader, said the security forces sparked the unrest by erecting the barricades near the mosque. “The government is to be blamed for it,” he said. When asked about the presence of armed students at the mosque, Mr. Ghazi said they “are our guards.”

Mr. Warriach said it was the duty of the government to protect the life and property of its citizens, and “we will do it.”

Authorities have been at loggerheads with the mosque for months over a land dispute and the mosque’s attempts to impose a harsh version of Islamic law in the capital.

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