ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Demonstrators rallied Friday in Pakistan’s major cities to denounce a government assault on a radical mosque that left more than 100 dead, and security forces were deployed to foil revenge attacks by extremists, officials said.
More than 1,200 demonstrators chanted slogans against President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, a key U.S. ally, after emerging from mosques following afternoon prayers in Karachi, the country’s largest city.
“Musharraf is going an extra mile to implement the agenda of America in this part of the world,” a prominent religious leader, Syed Munawwar Hasan, told the crowd.
Smaller rallies were held in Rawalpindi, Lahore, Peshawar, Islamabad and elsewhere a day after a six-member coalition of religious parties endorsed a call by 13,000 religious schools for a nationwide protest of the attack on the Red Mosque in Islamabad.
Fewer protesters turned out at the demonstrations than had been expected.
Musharraf, speaking on nationwide television Thursday night, vowed to eradicate extremism in Pakistan — focusing on the northwest along the Afghan border, which the U.S. says is increasingly a haven for al-Qaida and other terrorists.
“Extremism and terrorism will be defeated in every corner of the country,” Musharraf said. He said that madrassas, or religious schools, will not be tolerated if they encouraged violence by students, like some under the Red Mosque’s umbrella did.
Al-Qaida urges attacks
Army commandos overran the Red Mosque on Wednesday after a 35-hour battle with well-armed Islamic militants that ended an eight-day siege at the sprawling complex. The mosque’s radical clerics had led an increasingly violent vigilante anti-vice campaign in the capital.
Al-Qaida and the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan have urged revenge attacks, including suicide bombings, against government targets. The brother of a cleric killed in the standoff called for an “Islamic revolution.”
Police on Friday raided a house in the northwestern town of Dera Ismail Khan and arrested three suicide bombers who were preparing for attacks, said police official Niaz Quereshi. Quereshi said five suicide vests were seized.
Video: Al-Qaida's threat Violence across northwestern Pakistan, a hotbed of Islamic extremism, has killed at least 35 people since the fighting at the mosque began last week, prompting the army to send troops to at least four parts of the region.
About 3,000 troops were deployed to the town of Tank and others to Swat, according to intelligence officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Pakistan has already stationed about 90,000 troops in the region to flush out foreign militants and their local backers.
Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim told The Associated Press the government has taken “appropriate steps to safeguard the lives and property of common people, and to ensure that no one damages public property.”
Security forces were on “high alert” in Quetta, a city near the Afghan border, police chief Rehmat Ullah Niazi said.
Police were deployed outside mosques and other buildings in Karachi, said senior police official Azhar Faruqi.
No massive protest
There has not yet been a mass popular protest over the mosque siege, indicating that the crackdown has raised Musharraf’s standing among moderate Pakistanis worried about extremism.
The assault, however, has given hard-liners a new rallying cry and sparked calls for revenge attacks.
“God willing, Pakistan will have an Islamic revolution soon,” said Maulana Abdul Aziz, the Red Mosque’s chief cleric. The remarks were made at the funeral of his brother, cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who was killed during a last-ditch defense of the mosque.
Aziz, who was arrested last week while trying to slip out of the mosque disguised as a woman, was allowed by authorities to attend the funeral Thursday in Ghazi’s ancestral village in Punjab province.
Court steps in
On Friday, the Supreme Court ordered the government to release by Monday all persons arrested at the Red Mosque if they were not involved in major crimes.
Deputy Attorney General Tariq Khokhar said that 632 people, including Aziz’s wife and two daughters, were arrested in the operation. At least 386 people have already been released.
In Islamabad, crews interred the remains of dozens of slain militants into temporary graves, while the army took journalists to the mosque complex to show off weapons amassed by the extremists and the makeshift bunkers and other fortifications built at the holy site.
Concrete and white plaster walls were pocked by gunfire and interiors were scorched. Chunks of masonry had been torn from the mosque’s two white minarets, and daylight shone through hundreds of bullet holes in the roof.
Khokhar, quoting an official government report, said 102 people died in the Red Mosque violence, including 91 civilians and 11 military personnel. He said 248 were injured, including 204 civilians and 44 military.
An earlier tally based on official statements gave the death toll as 108.
Some opposition figures claim the death toll was higher, but none has offered any evidence. Qazi Hussain Ahmed, president of the six-party opposition United Action Forum, alleged that 400 to 1,000 people were killed.
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