At least 106 dead at Pakistan mosque

Updated: 2007-07-12 06:26

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - President Pervez Musharraf's government warned Wednesday it would not tolerate militancy at any of Pakistan's thousands of religious schools after the army subdued Islamic extremists holding the Red Mosque. At least 106 people died in the weeklong siege and street battles.

Hours later, Al-Qaida's No. 2 released a videotape calling on Pakistanis to join a holy war against Musharraf's government to avenge the army assault.

"Rigged elections will not save you, politics will not save you, and bargaining, bootlicking negotiations with the criminals, and political maneuvers will not save you," a bespectacled and white-clad Ayman al-Zawahri said in the video, which was subtitled in English.

"Musharraf and his hunting dogs have rubbed your honor in the dirt in the service of the Crusaders and the Jews," he said. The video was released by al-Qaida's multimedia branch, as-Sahab. Its authenticity could not immediately be confirmed, but two U.S.-based terrorism monitoring groups also reported it.

Authorities said at least 106 people were killed overall since the violence began July 3 at the Red Mosque complex, which includes two schools- one for girls and one for boys. The dead included 10 soldiers, one police ranger and a number of civilians killed by crossfire in initial street fighting last week.

Among the dead was a pro-Taliban cleric, Abdul Rashid Ghazi. Seventy-three bodies - believed to be those of the mosque's die-hard defenders - were found by Pakistani troops clearing the sprawling mosque complex of mines, booby traps and other weaponry.

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said commandos searching the mosque found no corpses of women and children, although seven or eight of the bodies had been burned beyond recognition, apparently by the militants' gasoline bombs.

"The major group of women was all together and came out all together," he said, referring to 27 women, a 9-year-old boy and two girls, aged 3 and 5, who emerged from the mosque Tuesday.

The extremists had been using the mosque as a base to send out radicalized students to enforce their version of Islamic morality, including abducting alleged prostitutes and trying to "re-educate" them at the compound.

The elite Special Services Group commandos went in after unsuccessful attempts to get the mosque's militants to surrender to a weeklong siege mounted by the government following deadly street clashes with armed supporters of the mosque on July 3.

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz warned the government would act against any other madrassa, or religious school, found to be involved in militancy.

"Militancy cannot be promoted, period," he told reporters. "The law will take its course, as the law took its course here."

Musharraf vowed five years ago to regulate Pakistan's thousands of religious schools, but concerns have only grown that some are used as sanctuaries or training sites for militants - including Taliban insurgents fighting in Afghanistan.

Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim conceded it was possible that other madrassas in Pakistan could be harboring weaponry like the Red Mosque, but added that the assault had sent a strong message that the government "meant business."

"We need to be now much more vigilant, but I hope they (extremist madrassas) have got the message that if they are in involved in such activities, they will have to face action," he said.

Students at the mosque's male and female schools ranged in age from as young as 4 to their early 20s. The female school also housed some widows and children left homeless by the 2005 earthquake that killed more than 80,000 people in northern Pakistan.

Relatives of students who had been in the mosque waited behind army barricades and inquired at morgues or a sports stadium where authorities set up an information center for those seeking missing loved ones.

"Oh God! help me find my son!" said Mohammed Ajmal, 39, who lost contact with 14-year-old Mohammed Amjad four days ago. "I went to all hospitals. I contacted police and the government, but I have no information about my son," he said, raising his arms to the sky.

Ajmal, who sent Amjad from their remote hometown in northern Pakistan a year ago to study the Quran at a religious school associated with the Red Mosque, was among about 100 parents searching for their loved ones at the sports stadium.

The government says 1,300 people, including men, women and children, escaped or otherwise left the compound after the army siege began July 3. It followed six months of mounting tension amid a vigilante campaign by the mosque's leaders to kidnap policemen and alleged prostitutes in a bid to impose Taliban-style morality on the capital.

Lying in his hospital bed at the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences, Bakhat Fazil recounted how he was hit by bullets in the shoulder and leg when he rushed to the mosque to rescue his three daughters trapped inside.

He later learned his daughters, all under age 10, had been freed and were safe.

Fazil said he sent his daughters to study, not to become militants, and that they were prevented from leaving the seminary by extremists.

"I know many parents begged for the release of their children," said the 38-year-old taxi driver. "I curse those who didn't free innocent women and children, and who held them against their will."

The casualties at the Red Mosque could further turn public opinion against Musharraf, who already faces a backlash for his bungled attempts to fire the country's chief justice. But it also pushed the controversy over the judge out of a harsh media spotlight and prompted a fresh show of support from Washington.

About 500 people chanting "Death to Musharraf!" rallied for an hour Wednesday in the northwest frontier city of Peshawar.

"This (mosque attack) is part of our government's action against religious elements to please America," said Shabbir Khan, a lawmaker from an opposition Islamic party, at the demonstration.

About 15 other Islamic opposition lawmakers gathered in front of the Supreme Court in Islamabad, blaming Musharraf for Pakistan's troubles, including the mosque attack, and calling for his resignation.

Top World News  
Today's Top News  
Most Commented/Read Stories in 48 Hours