President Pervez Musharraf’s government said Wednesday that militants accounted for most of the 106 people killed in eight days of fighting around the Red Mosque, calling it a signal that Islamic extremism won’t be tolerated in Pakistan.
Hours later, Al-Qaida’s No. 2 leader released a video to join in the militant outcry against Musharraf, calling on Pakistanis to join in a holy war to avenge the army assault. Ayman al-Zawahri told Pakistanis their president “rubbed your honor in the dirt.”
Authorities said the siege of the mosque compound, which included separate religious schools for girls and boys, resulted in the deaths of 10 soldiers, one police ranger and several civilians killed in the crossfire of the initial street battles that erupted July 3.
Seventy-three bodies — believed to be those of the mosque’s die-hard defenders — were found by Pakistani troops clearing the sprawling complex of mines, booby traps and other weaponry after the final 35-hour fight. Among the dead was the militants’ leader, pro-Taliban cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi.
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.
Bolted in after failed talks
The elite Special Services Group commandos went in after unsuccessful attempts to get the mosque’s militants to surrender after government forces surrounded the compound following the deadly street clashes with armed supporters of the mosque on July 3.
Shaukat Aziz warned that 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 earlier. “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.
1,300 said to have fled
The government says 1,300 people, including men, women and children, escaped or otherwise left the compound after the army siege began. 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.”
Placing Musharraf against the public
The casualties at the Red Mosque could further turn public opinion against Musharraf, who already faces a backlash for his attempt to fire the country’s chief justice. But the battle also has pushed the controversy over the judge out of the spotlight, and some Pakistanis were angered that the militants turned a holy site into an armed camp.
Al-Zawahri’s video was devoted solely to attacking Musharraf over the mosque siege.
“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 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 told Pakistanis.
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.
About 500 people chanting “Death to Musharraf!” rallied for an hour Wednesday in the northwest Pakistani 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.