Albany Times-Union : Explosion heard near Pakistan mosque

Friday, July 27, 2007

Explosion heard near Pakistan mosque

By SADAQAT JAN, Associated Press | July 27, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- A large explosion went off near Islamabad's Red Mosque on Friday, officials said. Local media reported several people died.

The explosion happened at a market area about a quarter mile from the mosque, where religious students clashed earlier in the day with security forces.

Ambulances were rushing to the scene of the explosion. Police said they were investigating. Dawn reported that seven people had died.

Hundreds of religious students occupied Islamabad's Red Mosque on Friday and clashed with security forces, demanding the return of a pro-Taliban cleric two weeks after a bloody army siege left more than 100 people dead.

Hundreds of protesters threw stones at an armored personnel carrier and dozens of police in riot gear on a road outside the mosque. After protesters disregarded police calls to disperse peacefully, police fired tear gas, scattering the crowd on the road.

Earlier, security forces stood by as protesters clambered onto the roof of the mosque and daubed red paint on the walls after forcing a government-appointed cleric assigned to lead Friday prayers to retreat.

The protesters demanded the return of the mosque's pro-Taliban former chief cleric, Abdul Aziz -- who is in government detention -- and shouted slogans against President Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Later a cleric from a seminary associated with the mosque led the prayers.

"Musharraf is a dog! He is worse than a dog! He should resign!" students shouted. Some lingered over the ruins of a neighboring girls' seminary that was demolished by authorities this week. Militants had used the seminary to resist government forces involved in the siege.

The mosque's clerics had used the mosque's thousands of students in an aggressive campaign to impose Taliban-style Islamic law in the capital. The campaign, which included kidnapping alleged Chinese prostitutes and threatening suicide attacks to defend the fortified mosque, raised concern about the spread of Islamic extremism in Pakistan.

Militants holed up in the mosque compound for a week before government troops launched their assault on July 10, leaving it pocked with bullet holes and damaged by explosions. At least 102 people were killed in the violence.

In an act of defiance to authorities' repainting of the mosque this week in pale yellow, protesters wrote "Lal Masjid" or "Red Mosque" in large Urdu script on the dome of the mosque. They also rose a black flag with two crossed swords -- meant to symbolize jihad, or holy war.

The crowd also shouted support for the mosque's former deputy cleric, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who led the siege until he was shot dead by security forces after refusing to surrender. Before that, Ghazi was the public face of a vigilante, Islamic anti-vice campaign that had challenged the government's writ in the Pakistani capital.

"Ghazi your blood will lead to a revolution," the protesters chanted.

Armed police stood by on the street outside the mosque, but did not enter the courtyard where the demonstration was taking place.

Islamabad commissioner Khalid Pervez said police forces did not want to go inside the mosque in case it led to a clash with protesters, but maintained the situation was under control. He said the reaction of Aziz's supporters was understandable and predicted things would calm down.

Over mosque loudspeakers, protesters vowed to "take revenge for the blood of martyrs."

In a speech at the mosque's main entrance, Liaqat Baloch, deputy leader of a coalition of hard-line religious parties, the Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal, condemned Musharraf as a "killer" and declared there would be an Islamic revolution in Pakistan.

"Maulana Abdul Aziz is still the prayer leader of the mosque. The blood of martyrs will bear fruit. This struggle will reach its destination of an Islamic revolution. Musharraf is a killer of the constitution. He's a killer of male and female students. The entire world will see him hang," Baloch said.

Pakistan's Geo television showed scenes of pandemonium inside the mosque, with dozens of young men in traditional Islamic clothing and prayers caps shouting angrily and punching the air with their hands.

Officials were pushed and shoved by men in the crowd. One man picked up shoes left outside the mosque door and hurled them at news crews recording the scene.

Maulana Ashfaq Ahmed, a senior cleric from another mosque in the city who was assigned by the government to lead the prayers, was quickly escorted from the complex, as protesters waved angry gestures at him.

Wahajat Aziz, a government worker who was among the protesters, said officials were too hasty in reopening the mosque.

"They brought an imam that people had opposed in the past," he said. "This created tension in the environment. People's emotions have not cooled down yet."

Security was tightened in Islamabad ahead of the mosque's reopening, with extra police taking up posts around the city and airport-style metal detectors put in place at the mosque entrance used to screen worshippers for weapons.

In the southwestern city of Quetta, meanwhile, gunmen opened fire on the vehicle of the official spokesman for a provincial government in Pakistan on the border with Afghanistan, killing him, police said.

Raziq Bugti, spokesman and special adviser to the chief minister of Baluchistan province, died at the scene after unknown assailants fired a barrage of shots as he drove past a school in Quetta, said Javid Ahmed, a local police officer.

The attackers fled, Ahmed said.

Baluchistan has experienced scores of attacks on military and government targets, most blamed on ethnic Baluch tribesmen and nationalist groups who are demanding the central government grant more royalties and control over resources, such as natural gas, extracted from the province.

The region has also been used by Taliban militants to launch attacks across the border on Afghan and foreign troops. Local officials have denied that al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and Taliban chief Mullah Omar are hiding in Baluchistan.

Musharraf has angrily rejected claims by Afghan President Hamid Karzai that Omar was living in Quetta, insisting that the Taliban leader was in Afghanistan's neighboring Kandahar province.