Leader of Red Mosque is killed in Pakistan raid
By Salman Masood, Somini Sengupta and Carlotta Gall | Published: July 10, 2007
ISLAMABAD: One of the leaders of the Lal Masjid mosque, where Pakistani security forces have been fighting with militants holed up inside, was killed Tuesday, an intelligence official said. Explosions and machine-gun fire reverberated in the heart of this capital for almost 13 hours after fighting began early Tuesday.
The intelligence official, who requested anonymity, said the leader, Abdur Rashid Ghazi, had been killed. He and his brother ran the mosque and its school. His brother, Mohammed Abdul Aziz, was arrested last week while trying to flee the scene in a burka.
A military spokesman said Tuesday that after 10 hours of fighting, 8 soldiers and about 50 presumed militants were dead. Roughly two dozen children, who the spokesman said were being held hostage, escaped.
Twenty-nine army troops and special forces soldiers were wounded, the military spokesman, Major General Waheed Arshad, said near Lal Masjid, or the Red Mosque. He said 50 men and 27 women had been captured, including 13 who were wounded in the fighting. Among them were the wife and daughter of one of the mosque's leaders.
The assault began around 4:30 a.m., just hours after the collapse of talks to end the eight-day siege. Throughout the day, explosions were accompanied by the rattle of small-arms fire and by early afternoon heavy bursts of machine-gun fire. Arshad said the militants' arsenal included rocket launchers, grenades, land mines and booby traps to foil troops trying to enter the compound. The militants, whom government officials described as being led by radical Islamist groups, were using the minarets of the mosque to fire at the security forces.
"There is intense engagement," Arshad said at a midday briefing. "There is a lot of resistance. They are well-armed, well-trained terrorists."
Of those who had been captured or wounded, Arshad said it was too early to tell who were militants and who had been kept inside against their will. Nor could military officials say how many remained inside. "It's too early to say who is who, who is a militant," he said.
The Lal Masjid, which enjoyed decades of government support, has become the epicenter of fierce anti-government religious extremism and a millstone around the neck of President Pervez Musharraf.
The compound takes up two city blocks. It comprises the mosque, a public library occupied by a seminary for male students, a women's seminary and the homes of the two brothers who have operated the organization.
Ghazi had been the voice of the organization since the siege began. Early Tuesday morning, speaking to a private Pakistani television station, Geo, he lambasted the military for betraying the cause of the "mujahedeen" and pledged that his people would fight to the death.
"Our army is being misused," Ghazi said. "It used to be an army of the mujahedeen." He declined to say how many civilians, including children, were inside the compound.
Arshad had said earlier Tuesday that Ghazi was believed to be hiding in the southern reaches of the compound, possibly in a basement that troops had not yet reached. By early afternoon, before the muezzins across the city called for midday prayers, troops had reached the women's school, the Jamia Hafsa, where an unknown number of people were believed to be held hostage.
Relatives of those inside the compound waited for news at a parking lot that has been dubbed the "surrender point" for those leaving the besieged mosque.
"We just want to find out if he has been martyred and where to collect his body," Jamila Bibi said of her 18-year-old son, Qazi Ajmal Mahmood, who had gone into the mosque eight days before for reasons she could not specify. She said he had telephoned her on someone else's cellphone four days ago and told her he was not leaving.
"Who knows what happened inside?" she said, clutching prayer beads and a cellphone. "Maybe people inside didn't let him out."
The Tuesday assault began after the collapse of a late-night bid for a negotiated settlement, itself a turnaround in government policy after six days of sporadic gun battles and ultimatums demanding unconditional surrender.
The delegation was authorized by Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz as a last-ditch effort to end the siege and to win the release of the students and some of their family members being held inside, government officials said. Under discussion was a face-saving option that would allow Ghazi to surrender and to turn over all the weapons inside the mosque to other senior clerics, two senior officials said.
The negotiating team did not enter the mosque but communicated with militants by cellphone and loudspeaker.
Before the assault, at least 24 people had been reported killed since gunfire broke out July 3, and scores - perhaps hundreds - of students, teachers and militants remained inside the mosque grounds. The mosque's leaders and its students have been pressing for the institution of Shariah law in Pakistan.
The delegation was led by Chaudhry Shujat Hussain, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League, the governing party. It included 12 clerics led by Mufti Rafi Usmani, the highest-ranking cleric of Pakistan. It also included Abdul Sattar Edhi, Pakistan's best-known philanthropist, and Sumaira Malik, the minister for women's development.
"The main point is that the people being held inside should be let go," said Muhammad Ali Durrani, the Pakistani information minister.