Islamabad, Pakistan – Security forces clashed with Islamic students outside a radical mosque in the Pakistani capital Tuesday, triggering gunfire that killed nine people, including four of the militant students, a senior official said.
The students later pelted two government buildings, including the Ministry of Environment, with rocks and set them ablaze, and torched a dozen cars in the ministry’s lot.
The battle marked a major escalation in a six-month standoff at the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, whose clerics have challenged the military-led government by mounting a vigilante anti-vice campaign in Islamabad.
At nightfall, the city’s top security official, Khalid Pervez, said a ceasefire had been reached with the militants.
“They can’t be allowed to sort of have a state within the state and assume powers. Of course this can’t be allowed,” said Pervez.
Deputy Interior Minister Zafar Warriach said the dead included four students, three civilians, one soldier and a journalist. However, clerics at the mosque claimed that 10 of their supporters died, according to a lawmaker sent to mediate.
The minister said 148 were injured, most of them by tear gas fired by security forces.
“The government is considering all options,” he said when asked what steps would be taken to defuse the stand-off. He said no decision has been taken on imposing a national state of emergency, but did not elaborate.
Meanwhile in the western city of Quetta, a stronghold of Islamist parties, about 200 seminary students and members of a radical group staged a demonstration in support of the Lal Masjid militants.
Marching in a street, they burned tires and chanted “Death to America” and “Death to Bush-Pervez,” a reference to Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
Trouble began when student followers of the mosque, including young men with guns and dozens of women wearing black burqas, rushed toward a nearby police checkpoint early Tuesday afternoon.
Police and paramilitary Rangers fired tear gas and, as the students retreated, an Associated Press photographer saw at least four male students, some of them masked, fire shots toward security forces about 200 meters (yards) away.
Gunfire was also heard from the police position.
A man used the mosque’s loudspeakers to order suicide bombers to get into position.
“They have attacked our mosque, the time for sacrifice has come,” the man said.
Calling it an “unfortunate incident,” Warriach said about 120 people from the mosque had tried to occupy a nearby government building and security forces reacted to control the situation. He did not elaborate on what the forces actually did.
Hours later, dozens of students were patrolling the area around the mosque, and sporadic shots were still heard.
Security forces, some riding in armored vehicles, cordoned off the area with barbed wire and checkpoints and continued to fire tear gas at the demonstrators from a distance. Shops in the area, about four kilometers (2.5 miles) from the government district, were shuttered.
Shah Abdul Aziz, a lawmaker for a hard-line religious party who rushed to the mosque to mediate, emerged to say that a cease-fire had been agreed – only for the shooting to continue after he left.
Aziz said the mosque’s leaders claimed that 10 of their supporters had died, including two female students.
“This matter can be resolved through dialogue. Force is not the solution,” Aziz said.
Some of the students carried gas masks and several were seen with gasoline-filled bottles and Molotov cocktails. About a dozen were armed with guns, including AK-47 assault rifles.
Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the mosque’s deputy leader, said the Rangers sparked the trouble by erecting barricades near the mosque.
“The government is to be blamed for it,” he said.
When asked about the presence of armed students at his mosque, Ghazi said they “are our guards.”
Earlier, doctors said two policemen were among the dead but Warriach did not include any police casualties in his count.
Witnesses said a newspaper reporter and a cameraman were caught in the crossfire and taken to a hospital with bullet wounds. It was not immediately clear whether one of these was the journalist reported dead by Warriach.
Authorities have been at loggerheads with the mosque for months over a land dispute and after its followers began a campaign to impose a Taliban-style version of Islamic law in the capital.
Students have carried out a string of kidnappings of police officers and alleged prostitutes, including several Chinese nationals, and have threatened suicide attacks if security forces intervene.
Critics have lambasted the government for negotiating with the clerics instead of arresting them, and blamed President Gen. Pervez Musharraf for the creeping “Talibanization” of Pakistan.
Hundreds of police and paramilitary Rangers have taken up position near the mosque in recent days in what officials have said is an effort to contain their activities.
Musharraf said last week that he was ready to raid the mosque, but warned that militants linked to al-Qaida had slipped inside and that the media would blame any bloodbath on the government.