- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 5, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Security forces besieging a radical mosque in the Pakistani capital captured its top cleric yesterday as he tried to sneak out of the complex in a burqa, and more than 1,000 of his followers surrendered.

President Pervez Musharraf deployed the army to subdue the remaining militants holed up in Islamabad’s Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, whose clerics have defied the government for months with a drive to impose a Taliban-style version of Islamic law in the city.

The tensions exploded into a daylong battle Tuesday between security forces and students, some of whom were heavily armed and masked. Sixteen persons were killed, officials said.

The government ordered the militants to lay down their arms and surrender by yesterday morning, as it positioned armored vehicles and helicopters around the mosque in a show of strength.

A security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press, said authorities captured the mosque’s top cleric, Maulana Abdul Aziz, after a female police officer tried to search his body, which was concealed by a full-length black burqa.

The officer began shouting: “This is not a woman,” the official said, prompting male officers to seize him.

“The suspect later turned out to be the mosque’s chief cleric,” the official said.

An Associated Press Television News cameraman saw plainclothes police bundling the gray-bearded cleric into the back of a car, which sped away.

“They have no options but to surrender,” said Javed Iqbal Cheema, a government spokesman. “The government is not into dialogue with these clerics.”

The mosque’s deputy leader, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, said earlier in the day that he was prepared to talk with the government, but added, “We will continue to defend ourselves.”

As evening fell, sporadic gunfire erupted around the mosque and at an adjacent women’s seminary while three helicopter gunships circled overhead. Scores of police and soldiers, some armed with sniper rifles, watched as students filed out of the compound. Several of the women were in tears.

The city’s deputy administrator, Chaudhry Muhammad Ali, said more than 1,000 had surrendered. All women and children will be granted amnesty, but men involved in killings and other crimes as well as top mosque leaders will face legal action, said Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim.

Information Minister Mohammed Ali Durrani said “a few hundred” or more people could be remaining inside the mosque complex. It was not clear how many were hardened militants.

One who surrendered, 15-year-old Maryam Qayyeum, said those who stayed in the seminary “only want martyrdom.”

“They are happy,” she said. “They don’t want to go home.”

Maryam said mosque leaders were not trying to stop students from giving up. But her mother, who had come to take her home said, “They are making speeches. They want to incite them.”

The violence started Tuesday when male and female student followers of the mosque — some of them masked and armed — rushed toward a police checkpoint. Gunfire broke out between the students and security forces, sparking a daylong series of clashes.

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