Reuters : Pakistan reopens battle-battered Red Mosque

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Pakistan reopens battle-battered Red Mosque

By Zeeshan Haider | July 26, 2007

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan reopened Islamabad's Red Mosque for prayers on Thursday, three weeks after it was battered by fierce clashes between security forces and Islamist militants in which scores of people were killed.

Pakistani security forces laid siege to the sprawling mosque complex on July 3, before launching a full-scale assault a week later after followers of radical clerics running a Taliban-style movement from there refused to surrender.

The government said 102 people were killed in fighting when security forces stormed the complex, which also houses a madrasa, or Islamic school, for women.

Known as Lal Masjid or Red Mosque for its red bricks, the complex will emerge from the renovation painted cream and white.

The mosque's walls, peppered with bullet holes, have been repaired while the battle-scarred women's madrasa was razed because it was structurally unsafe, according to the government.

Big cranes were being used to remove rubble and tents were erected in the mosque courtyard for mass midday prayers on Friday.

However, bullet scars on trees in and around the mosque and a gutted building of the Ministry of Environment across from the complex were stark reminders of the fierce battles fought in the centre of the capital.

"We hope that such tragic incidents do not recur in our country," Mohammad Ejaz-ul-Haq, Minister for Religious Affairs, told reporters after attending the first prayers in the mosque since the assault.

Lal Masjid, built in the 1960s, had turned into a headquarters of Islamic radicals during the military rule of Minister Haq's father, General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, in the 1980s when Muslim fighters from all over the world flocked to Pakistan to fight the Soviet invasion of neighbouring Afghanistan.

It hit international headlines this year when burqa-clad female and male followers linked to the complex launched an aggressive campaign to impose Taliban-style religious culture in Islamabad.

They kidnapped women they accused of involvement in prostitution, abducted police, attacked music shops, and seized a government library to press for reconstruction of mosques demolished by the government for being built illegally.

Haq said the government had promised before the assault that it would rebuild the demolished mosques, and it would abide by its commitment.

"I want to tell religious scholars and clerics that this government respects mosques and madrasas," he said.

After the assault, President Pervez Musharraf, an important ally of the United States in its war on terror, vowed not to allow mosques or madrasas like the Lal Masjid and its school to be used to spread militancy.

The government has appointed a soft-spoken imam in the mosque in a move seen as neutralising influence of the radical clerics.