Guardian : Violent clashes as Red Mosque reopens

Friday, July 27, 2007

Violent clashes as Red Mosque reopens

Associated Press | Guardian Unlimited | July 27, 2007

Police fired teargas at hundreds of religious students who occupied Islamabad's Red Mosque today, two weeks after an army siege that left more than 100 dead.

Protesters demanding the return of a pro-Taliban cleric threw stones at an armoured personnel carrier and at dozens of police in riot gear on a road outside the mosque.

Police used teargas to scatter the crowd after protesters ignored their appeals. They fled back inside the mosque compound. A voice on the mosque loudspeaker, of which a small group of religious students appeared to be in control, urged the protesters not to attack the security forces, but the situation remained tense.

The clashes spoiled a government attempt to reopen the mosque, which was stormed by the army on July 10 after its pro-Taliban clerics had launched an anti-vice campaign. The government had turned a blind eye until militants seized seven Chinese nationals, precipitating a bloody raid on the mosque.

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

The protesters demanded the return of the mosque's former chief cleric, Abdul Aziz, who was in government detention, and shouted slogans against the president, General Pervez Musharraf.

"Musharraf is a dog! He is worse than a dog! He should resign!" students shouted.

In an act of defiance against the authorities repainting the mosque this week in pale yellow, protesters wrote "Lal Masjid" (Red Mosque) in large Urdu script on the mosque's dome.

They also raised a black flag with two crossed swords, meant to symbolise 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.

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

Officials were pushed and shoved by men in the crowd.

Maulana Ashfaq Ahmed, a senior cleric from another mosque in the city who was assigned by the government to lead Friday's prayers, was quickly escorted from the mosque as protesters gestured angrily at him.

Today's attempted reopening of the mosque was meant to help cool anger over the siege, which triggered a flare-up in militant attacks on security forces across Pakistan.

However, there was still public scepticism over the government's accounting of how many people died in the siege, with many still claiming that a large number of children and religious students were among the dead.

At least 102 people were killed in the violence. Attacks by militants in north-western Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan have surged since the siege, killing about 200 others in suicide bombings and clashes, many of them security forces.