Pakistani hard-line religious students exchange fire with security personnel, 9 killed

By Xinhua

Islamabad : A total of nine people died and many others were injured in Tuesday's firing exchange between religious students of hard-line Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, and law enforcers in Pakistani capital city Islamabad, the Interior Ministry said.

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The killed included a soldier, four religious students, three passers-by and one cameraman, said Zafar Iqbal Wariach, Pakistan's Minister of State for Interior, while addressing a news briefing here.

Gunfire started at about 12:30 p.m. (GMT0830) noon after a group of religious students encircled some policemen deployed nearthe mosque and snatched arms from them, according to officials.

Sporadic firing between Pakistan Rangers and the religious students continued for hours until late afternoon, with gun shooting sounds echoed in the neighborhood.

TV screens showed that tear gas shelling were used by the paramilitary forces, wearing gas masks.

"Despite unprovoked firing by the students of Lal Masjid, the government still wants to settle issue through dialogue," said Wariach, deputy interior minister, while talking to state-run Pakistan Television earlier.

Talking to a private TV channel, Pakistani Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao said the seminary students had started firing first and asked the Lal Masjid to hand over the students involved in the incident.

"The government doesn't want bloodshed but would not tolerate incidents of lawlessness," Sherpao said.

Meanwhile, deputy of the Lal Masjid Abdul Rashid Ghazi said that the government launched an operation against his mosque and seminary students without any provocation.

Ghazi said that the Rangers started teargas shelling, gun-firing that triggered stampede and injured over 100 girl children, while some of them were taken to the hospital.

After the incident, law enforcers comprising elite forces, Rangers and policemen, cordoned off the surroundings of Lal Masjidand blocked the entry of general public.

Vowing to enforce Shariat in the country, Lal Masjid clerics and their religious students entered into a standoff with the authorities since months ago over a land dispute about a seminary affiliated with the mosque.

Since then, the Lal Masjid religious students took a series of steps from occupying a government library, arresting some alleged brothel runners, attacking music shops, to kidnapping policemen.