The Storming of the Red Mosque


The siege of the mosque has been going on for over a week, but today the military struck. It has been a violent confrontation with both sides firing on each other indiscriminately. It started during the early hours today with the military now determined to brook no further resistance. There has been sporadic gunfire the whole day and over fifty Islamic militants and a dozen soldiers lie dead. I saw several militants, their faces covered with blood-soaked cloth, raising their hands and surrendering to the military.

Darkness has fallen on the city now, but the fires in the complex that houses the mosque and the two religious schools are still burning. There are reports that nearly a hundred people have been killed today, but it is difficult to get too near the mosque since the area is now sealed off. Since last January a radical Islamist cleric, Abdul Aziz, and several hundred supporters (many of them armed) had been resisting the government. The land on which the mosque and its schools were built was, according to government sources, illegally occupied. The clerics insisted they had authorisation, but to divert attention from their land-grab they organised their students into vigilantes , kidnapped Shia women on the pretext that they were prostitutes, occupied a children’s library and hurled an ultimatum at the government: all brothels, music shops were to be closed down immediately; all billboards that depicted women had to be removed and if the government refused a spate of suicide-bombers would make the city ungovernable.

Abdul Aziz tried to escape yesterday disguised as a woman and covered from head to toe in a black ‘burqa’, but he was soon discovered and taken into custody. His brother Abdul Rashid refused to surrender and was reportedly preparing for martyrdom.

Earlier, General Musharraf had calmly informed the jihadis that they had two choices: surrender or ‘be killed’. Nearly a thousand men and women had surrendered over the last few days and today the killings began. We will not know the final outcome for a few days in terms of how many have died.

What pushed the government was China’s angry response to the killing of three Chinese workers on July 8th in the religious stronghold of Peshawar. Military intelligence reported that the militants who had carried out the killings were linked to the group in the Islamabad mosque. This coupled with the break-down of direct negotiations led to the final assault today.

What is noticeable is that there is very little public support in the capital for the militants. Normally angry crowds gather to berate the driver of an official car when he has braked too late and hurt a bystander. But the crowds are silent, few have any sympathy with the militants. A young student, Mohammed Azhar, told me: ‘I don’t like anyone to die, but these guys are dangerous and putting our lives at risk. I have three sisters in medical college. They wouldn’t be there if these people had their way.’

JAVED HUSSEIN has been reporting on the siege for German radio.