ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - A Pakistani paramilitary trooper was shot dead and seven students were wounded during clashes at a mosque run by a Taliban-style movement in Islamabad on Tuesday.
The clashes began when around 150 students attacked a security picket at a government office near the capital’s Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, snatched weapons and took four government officials hostage, according to police.
“I can confirm that one of our troopers has been killed in the firing from inside the mosque,” Masha Allah, a senior paramilitary official, told reporters.
A Reuters correspondent saw seven students with gunshot wounds being taken to hospital.
Paramilitary forces fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of students outside the mosque, and came under fire from automatic weapons. Several female students were taken to hospitals suffering from the effects of the gas.
“We retaliated with tear gas after which gunshots were fired from inside the mosque,” Zafar Iqbal, a senior police official said. “They have also taken away with them four officials of the government office.”
Gun shots rang out intermittently for two hours though it was unclear if either side was firing directly on the other, as dozens of students carrying staves remained on the street outside the mosque, undeterred by the shooting.
Burqa-clad women stood on the rooftops of an adjacent madrasa, shouting anti-government slogans, while male students guarded the entrances to the compound, and some were seen brandishing Kalashnikov rifles.
“Kill us. We will die but we will not back off from our demands to enforce Islamic Sharia,” said Mahira, one of the female students, told Reuters by telephone.
Troops occupied buildings overlooking the sprawling mosque complex, which also houses a religious seminary, or madrasa.
Police armed with batons lined up in neighboring streets, while ambulances parked nearby.
SUICIDE BOMBERS TOLD TO WAIT
Authorities have been locked in a tense stand-off for months with the student movement, which is seeking to impose Taliban-style social values in the Pakistani capital.
The government has hitherto refrained from using force, out of fear that it could provoke threatened suicide attacks.
Concern that casualties among female students could result in a backlash from religious conservatives around the country has also stayed the government’s hand.
But clerics ordered followers not to mount suicide attacks in an appeal broadcast over the mosque’s loudspeakers.
“We request all those who are to carry out suicide bomb attacks not to carry out any attack at this moment,” said the appeal, issued in between chanting of jihadi anthems.
Last Friday, President Pervez Musharraf said suicide bombers from an al Qaeda-linked militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammad, were holed up in the mosque.
Jaish was primarily focused on fighting Indian rule in Kashmir, but some of its members later forged links with Osama bin Laden’s network.
Musharraf, who survived two al Qaeda-inspired assassination attempts, said the government had tried to resolve the standoff through negotiations, but was ready to take action.
Deployment in recent days of large numbers of paramilitary troops in the neighborhood had fuelled speculation that the authorities patience was running out.
The Red Mosque has long been known as a hotbed of Islamic radicalism in Islamabad but trouble began in January when female students attached to the mosque occupied a library next to their madrasa to protest over a campaign to knock down mosques built illegally on state land.
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