At least 9 killed in clashes at Pakistan mosque

ISLAMABAD – Nine people were shot dead on Tuesday in clashes between Pakistani paramilitary forces and radical Muslim students at an Islamabad mosque run by a Taliban-style movement, officials said.

Sporadic firing between paramilitary forces and the student militants inside the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, rang out for hours in the heart of the leafy capital.

Hardline religious students campaigning for observance of strict Islamic law have been confronting authorities for months and liberal politicians have been pressing President Pervez Musharraf to crack down on them.

The government had refrained from using force for fear it could provoke suicide attacks, or lead to casualties among female students at a school, or madrasa, in the mosque compound.

Deputy Interior Minister Zafar Warraich told a news conference nine people had been killed in the violence and authorities were trying to defuse the situation. A cleric inside the mosque, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, told Reuters eight students had been killed.

“A state within state is never a good situation anywhere, in any country,” Information Minister Mohammad Ali Durrani told the news conference.

He declined to say if security forces would storm the mosque which has long been a centre of Islamic radicalism.

An Interior Ministry official said four students, a paramilitary soldier and a Pakistani television cameraman were killed. A total of 148 people were taken to hospital, 30 with bullet wounds, others suffering from teargas.

The clashes began when about 150 students attacked a security post at a government office near the mosque, snatched weapons and took four officials hostage, according to police.

Paramilitary forces fired teargas to disperse hundreds of students outside the mosque, and then came under fire.

Someone in the mosque later used a loudspeaker to call for suicide attacks, though a cleric there denied to Reuters that any such order had been given.

The violence comes at a bad time for Musharraf who has been facing a campaign against him by lawyers and the opposition since he suspended the country’s top judge in March. He is also preparing for a presidential and general elections.

The 5,000 or so students affiliated with the mosque range in age from teenagers to people in their 30s, many from conservative areas near the Afghan border. They study under firebrand clerics and have been campaigning against vice and for Islamic law.