Ten killed, 150 wounded during running gun battles in Islamabad; Government buildings burned; 111 Brigade deployed; uncertainty about Pakistani government’s next move
President Pervez Musharraf is in full crisis mode after a days worth for fighting at the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque. At least 10 were killed, including a Pakistani Ranger and a journalist, and 150 were wounded after the Taliban-supporting members of the Red Mosque opened fire on government troops cordoning the mosque. The fighting is occurring in the heart of Islamabad, less than one mile from the Parliament building, the residence of the Prime Minister, the headquarters of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence agency, and the Pakistani Supreme Court.
Pakistan’s Dawn has a breakdown on the fighting in Islamabad. As reported earlier, the students of the Red Mosque initiated the fighting with the Pakistani Rangers who have been assigned to patrol around the mosque. After a series of scuffles, which resulted in the capture of weapons and equipment from the Rangers, the Red Mosque students opened fire, killing a Ranger and wounding others. Red Mosque students torched the government buildings belonging to the Environment Ministry and the Estate Office. Followers of nearby mosques flocked to the Red Mosque to provide support against the government.
Violence started after a large number of Lal Masjid students tried to storm the Estate Office and, during the scuffle, snatched a number of assault rifles from policemen posted there. Soon after, several hundred students of the women madressah came out and marched up to the government offices in the area to register their protest against the authority’s plans for a security operation.
In the meantime, paramilitary troops were rushed in to intensify patrolling. Tempers had already started to flare up. As more provocation came from inside the mosque in the form of rocks and bricks targeting the patrolling Rangers, the riot police responded with heavy tear-gassing. The retaliation came from inside the seminary in the form of dozens of rounds from automatic guns. One such bullet hit a Ranger’s lance naik, Mubarik Hussain, who died in hospital. Within no time, the Rangers started firing back with automatic guns, with the area between the nearby residential quarters and a few government buildings and Lal Masjid looking like a battled-ground.
As several people were injured on the both sides, including many girl students, better sense prevailed for a while, with security troops withdrawing to their nearby camps, or in the sidelines. This proved counter-productive as hundreds of supporters of Lal Masjid joined in from two nearby mosques. The armed seminary students were freely roaming the streets, not only flashing their Kalashnikovs and other automatic weapons with straps of magazines and grenades wrapped around their waist, some of them were even wearing gas-masks with many other carrying home-made petrol bombs in both their hands.
As the madressah students tried to gain more ground in the area and started to gradually move in two directions on the main road, Rangers and riot police made a forceful comeback, this time with larger force. Soon they started firing tear-gas shells and bullets. The madressah militants, who had taken position on the mosque’s roof and behind several trees, returned fire at will. So abrupt was this second round of clash that many journalists and local residents and onlookers were caught off-guard. Several of them found themselves in the midst of the cross-fire.
The situation is tense as Maulana Abdul Aziz and Ghazi Abdul Rasheed, the leaders of the Red Mosque, permitted their suicide bombers to strike. While the Pakistani government attempted to back down from escalating the fighting throughout the day in a failed effort to defuse the situation, the Pakistani government is signaling it will act.
“The government decided late on Tuesday to launch an operation against Lal Masjid in Islamabad to enforce the writ of the state,” Daily Times stated, based on government sources. “It was decided that the Lal Masjid administration would be given a brief ultimatum to surrender and vacate the mosque and its allied madrassas. They would also be asked to hand over madrassa students accused of taking the law into their own hands and attacking law enforcement officials. If the demands are not met, security forces would start an operation, possibly amidst a curfew.” A curfew has been imposed and utilities are reported to have been cut to the mosque.
Dawn also reported the 111 Brigade of the Pakistani Army has been deployed around the Red Mosque compound. The 111 Brigade is an elite force responsible for the security of Islamabad. The brigade was instrumental in President Musharraf’s coup in 1999 against former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, as they surrounded the Prime Minister’s home and secured the airport to allow Musharraf to reenter the country and take control of the Army.
But the Daily Times reported the government is also signaling its willingness to talk. “Despite unprovoked firing by the students of Lal Masjid, the government still wants to settle the issue through dialogue,” State Interior Minister Zafar Warraich told PTV. Members of the Taliban supporting Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal have attempted to broker a cease-fire.
While the Taliban has successfully chipped away at the government’s writ in the hinterlands of the settled districts of the Northwest Frontier Province and the wild tribal agencies bordering Afghanistan, the clerics of the Red Mosque have directly changed the writ of the government in its seat of power. The Pakistani government has repeatedly backed down to the Taliban in the Northwest Frontier Province and against lesser infractions by the leaders and followers of the Red Mosque. With the current political crisis over the dismissal of Pakistan’s Chief Justice, President Musharraf is politically weak while his military has repeatedly signaled it is unwilling to act against the Taliban.
A failure to act will embolden an already bold enemy and promote the spread of the Talibanization of Pakistan. A strike on the mosque will lead to political turmoil and the possibility of an open insurrection from the Islamist parties and the Taliban. The Northwest Frontier Province and swaths of Baluchistan are largely under Taliban and al Qaeda control, and the reaction of the Taliban in these regions to the events in Islamabad bears close watching.