ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - People in the Pakistani capital showed little sympathy for militants in a mosque compound that security forces stormed on Tuesday but feared for the safety of women and children believed to be in the complex.
Dozens of militants and members of the security forces were killed in an assault on the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, in Islamabad, to end a week long siege that followed clashes with militant students on July 3.
“It had to happen one day, but thank God it’s over,” said Shazia Khurram, an Islamabad teacher, though she was speaking too soon as the assault that began before dawn and was still not over by early evening.
“Everyone’s worried about the women and innocent children. It will be very tragic if something happens to them.”
The worst outcome for U.S. ally President Pervez Musharraf would be heavy casualties among women and children believed held inside the mosque complex.
The government said children had been used as human shields, and many people refused to believe militant denials.
“The people in the Lal Masjid had become terrorists,” said Sohail Iqbal, a salesman at a book shop less than a kilometer (half a mile) from the mosque.
“They held women and children hostage and even threatened to kill them if they left,” he said.
With elections due by the year end, General Musharraf, who came to power in a 1999 coup, could do with a lift.
He has been going though the rockiest phase of his presidency, thanks largely to a botched attempt to oust the country’s top judge.
The controversy stirred by Lal Masjid’s militant students, who launched a campaign to impose strict Islamic law in January, had added to his troubles, as Pakistani media and moderate politicians berated the government for not acting sooner.
“If they acted then, a lot of lives could have been saved today,” said government employee Mumtaz Qureshi.
Instead, the authorities had tried to appease the students after they mounted a vigilante anti-vice campaign, kidnapping women they accused of prostitution. They threatened shops selling Western films and abducted policemen.
Raja Asghar, 62, a retired government official, said he failed to understand how the militants stockpiled arms and ammunition in a mosque in the centre of the capital.
“People would be right in thinking if such a thing can happen in Islamabad, how much worse is it elsewhere?”
Tailor Shaukat Ali in Peshawar, the capital of North West Frontier Province, also blamed the government.
“Almost every one agrees mosques and madrasas are for imparting Islamic education and should not be used for militancy ... (but) the government is responsible. Why did they allow it to go on for so long?” Ali said.
In conservative areas on the Afghan border, where support for militants is rife, the assault was seen as an attack on Islam and an attempt to pander to the United States.
“This is an attack not just on the Lal Masjid but on our religion, Islam,” said shopkeeper Malik Gul Maroof Shah in the town of Miranshah in North Waziristan.
“We condemn the attack. Everything Musharraf does is to please the Americans,” said electronics shop owner Amir Hamza.
Additional reporting Haji Mujtaba in Miranshah
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