At least nine killed in clashes near Lal Masjid


Islamabad : At least nine people, including a soldier and a journalist, were killed and more than 150 others were injured in ongoing armed clashes between security forces and militant students at a mosque in Islamabad Tuesday, officials said.

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The intense gunfight occurred outside the heavily fortified Lal Majid, or Red Mosque, whose radical students began a standoff with authorities in February over their efforts to impose a strict Islamic way of life on the citizens of the Pakistani capital.

The violent clash began around midday when a group of stick-wielding students attacked a police checkpoint set up adjacent to the mosque. The students seized four law enforcers and also snatched their rifles and a radio set, a senior police officer said.

In a retaliatory move a police armoured personnel carrier fired several tear-gas shells at the mosque and its adjacent seminary, which prompted the heavily armed students to open fire.

"I can confirm that one of our troopers has been killed in the firing from inside the mosque," a senior officer of the Pakistan Rangers, Masha Allah, told reporters outside the mosque.

Security personnel barricaded all roads around the mosque complex after the first clash and took up positions on rooftops of surrounding buildings, while armed students were also holed up in bunker-like structures made up of sandbags.

The extremist cleric of the mosque, Ghazi Abdul Rashid, claimed to DPA that eight of his students were killed in the clashes where hundreds of rounds were fired from both sides.

However, hospital sources confirmed altogether nine deaths.

An armed student of the Red Mosque died when he was shot in the forehead, presumably by a sniper of the Rangers, a DPA correspondent reported from the scene. At least two more bodies were spotted at the scene.

Two construction workers in the nearby building also died in the hail of bullets while a trader from a nearby market succumbed to injuries on his way to the hospital. One more unidentified body was also brought to the hospital.

A local journalist died while covering the incident while a cameraman from CNBC-Pakistan news channel was hit by a high-calibre bullet fired by Rangers from their position in the building of a girls' school. He was taken to hospital in a critical condition.

Pakistan's Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao denied launching a raid on the mosque and told the Geo News television channel that, "the government does not want bloodshed." He also sought the custody of the gunmen who engaged the police personnel.

Amid gunfire, masked students rampaged undeterred towards the positions occupied by the paramilitary forces and set fire to two of them, forcing them to retreat.

The markets and streets around the mosque turned into a battlefield when hundreds of local residents joined the students of Red mosque in their rebellion and hurled stones at the building where the security forces were positioned.

The students in effect controlled the area surrounding the mosque as the clashes were going on.

"I am a mujahid (holy warrior) from Afghanistan. I have come here to defend this mosque. If the Rangers do not stop firing on us, we will burn the entire city," a middle-aged student told DPA as an injured colleague was being moved to an ambulance.

Dozens of female students at the Jamia Hafsa seminary reportedly fainted due to the use of tear gas by the police and were taken to hospital.

During the clash, clerics used loudspeakers exhorting the students to defend the mosque and prepare to carry out suicide attacks.

"We were waiting for this fight for the last five months. We are sitting here to sacrifice our lives. We will never retreat," said a speaker.

Police sealed off the roads leading to Islamabad in a bid to stop supporters of the radical students travelling to the capital from the nearby city of Rawalpindi and from the country's restive tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, hundreds of students of Islamic schools held a demonstration in Lahore in support of the students and blocked a road by setting tyres on fire.

The government lost its patience in the five-month standoff with the students of the Red Mosque when several Chinese women were abducted last month from a massage centre over allegations that they were involved in prostitution.

The students had also issued warnings to the owners of audio and video entertainment stores to stop selling "un-Islamic" goods, and had ordered women not to drive.