Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Burkha brigade: Women lead the charge in mosque clashes

Like some secretive, sinister army they march on their target.

With only eyes visible behind black burkhas, scores of women wielding bamboo poles descend on a police checkpoint in the Pakistan capital of Islamabad.

Backed by armed male students, they snatched weapons and took four officials hostage, triggering a gun battle that left at least nine people dead and 140 wounded.

As the bullets flew, many of the women took to rooftops to shout anti- Government slogans.



Students set fire to two government offices and torched dozens of cars outside.

There were even loudspeaker calls for suicide attacks on the police. The clashes yesterday were a violent climax to a long dispute between Pakistani officials and the controversial Red Mosque, run by a Taliban-style movement.


Clerics at the mosque and the 5,000 students at its two madrassas, or religious schools, have been campaigning for the imposition of fundamentalist Islamic social values, including Sharia law, that would include public executions and the stoning of adulterers.

Trouble first flared in January when female students occupied a library next to their madrassa to protest at the destruction of mosques built illegally on state land.

The fundamentalists have also been involved in a number of incidents, including the kidnapping of police and prostitutes and anyone the mosque's leaders say is involved in immoral activities.


About 150 students, including masked men with guns and scores of women in burkhas, attacked a police checkpoint near the mosque. Some carried gas masks and several had petrol bombs.

Police and paramilitary Rangers fired tear gas and, as the students retreated, at least four male students open fire on security forces from about 200 yards away.

Shooting by both sides went on for several hours. Scores of local people, including children, came out to shout support for the students and call on the government to stop the shooting.

Officials said at least four students, including two women, were killed, along with two policemen and a soldier.

There were reports that a TV cameraman and a passer-by also died. Clerics at the mosque, however, said at least ten of their supporters had died.

Troops occupied buildings overlooking the sprawling mosque complex while ambulances waited nearby.


Abdul Rashid Ghazi, a deputy leader of the student movement, said: "They are behaving brutally. So far several of our students have been killed. The government is to be blamed."

Asked about the presence of armed students, Ghazi said: "They are our guards." He claimed the Rangers sparked the trouble by erecting barricades near the mosque. But Pakistani officials said it began when police moved to stop militant students occupying a government building.

Mahira, one of the female students, said in a phone call from the mosque: "Kill us. We will die but we will not back off from our demands to enforce Islamic Sharia."

As the shooting continued there was a loudspeaker announcement inside the mosque complex calling for suicide attacks on security forces.

"They have attacked our mosque, the time for sacrifice has come," it said. There was no immediate sign of such attacks being carried out.

The Pakistani government has so far refrained from using force against the mosque for fear of provoking suicide attacks.

Officials were also worried about potential casualties among female students.

But last Friday Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who has survived two Al Qaeda-inspired assassination attempts, said the government was ready to take action.

He said suicide bombers and militants from the Jaish-e-Mohammad group, which is linked to Al Qaeda, were inside the mosque.

Some clerics have accused Musharraf's intelligence agencies of encouraging the crisis to justify a state of emergency and prolong military rule. As darkness fell last night, city officials said a ceasefire had been agreed.

One soldier was killed in the standoff with these Islamist radical students

Fighting has continued throughout the day with Islamist students taking on security guards
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