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Nine killed in clashes at Pakistan mosque

Pakistani security forces fight fierce gun battles with students at a pro-Taliban mosque after a lengthy standoff exploded into violence.

world Updated: Jul 04, 2007 02:10 IST

Pakistani security forces fought fierce gun battles with students at a pro-Taliban mosque in Islamabad on Tuesday after a lengthy standoff exploded into violence, leaving nine people dead and 140 hurt.

Clerics at the radical Lal Masjid threatened suicide attacks to avenge the "blood of martyrs" after the day-long clashes, which killed a soldier, a journalist, three bystanders and four Islamist students.

The shootout followed months of tension over the mosque's increasingly brazen challenges to the authority of President Pervez Musharraf, most recently the kidnapping of seven Chinese citizens as part of an anti-vice campaign.

"The deaths of nine people have been confirmed so far and more than 140 wounded," deputy interior minister Zafar Warriach told a news conference.

"A decision whether to continue the operation will be taken after assessing the ground realities. It is the government's duty to provide protection to its countrymen," he added. Both sides blamed the other for the carnage.

Security officials said it began when dozens of baton-wielding male and burqa-clad female students attacked policemen near the mosque, stealing four guns and a radio set and prompting police to fire tear gas in response.

As people fled from two busy shopping areas nearby, students wearing gas masks started trading Kalashnikov fire with security forces from behind sandbags and bunkers chanting "Jihad! Jihad! (holy war)", an AFP correspondent said.

Sporadic exchanges of gunfire continued throughout the afternoon. Later students set fire to the nearby Ministry of Environment building and a property belonging to the Capital Development Authority.

A cameraman for a private television channel was shot dead when troops let off a burst of gunfire to disperse the mob as it tried to smash up a nearby girls' school, an AFP photographer who witnessed the incident said.

A loudspeaker announcement from the mosque as night fell warned of impending suicide attacks.

"The blood of the martyrs will not go to waste. We are ready for suicide attacks," the unidentified mullah's voice said. "Our holy war will continue until sharia (Islamic law) is enforced throughout the country."

One of the mosque's main goals is to make Pakistan an Islamic state along the lines of Afghanistan under Taliban rule, which lasted from 1996 until the US-led invasion in 2001.

One of the two brothers who runs the mosque, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, said the students had only retaliated after security forces opened fire, and said the authorities had broken an agreement not to besiege the mosque.

"The administration wants to see dead bodies scattered on the roads. Why are they doing this?" he said.

Hospitals in Islamabad declared a state of emergency as blood-spattered minibuses from the mosque and private ambulances ferried in casualties.

They said many of the injured were female students from the mosque suffering from tear gas inhalation. One girl was undergoing surgery to remove bullets from her back and hand.

Military ruler Musharraf, a key ally in the US "war on terror," has faced mounting criticism at home and abroad over the failure to crack down on the mosque.

Musharraf said last week that suicide bombers from an Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic militant group were sheltering in it.

But he has held off largely for fear of causing casualties among the thousands of students -- especially the women, most of whom hail from Taliban-sympathising areas along the Afghan border.

Thousands of Islamic students took to the streets in the northwestern town of Mingora and the southwestern city of Quetta later Tuesday in protest at the bloodshed, witnesses said.

The mosque has been monitored by scores of security personnel since its students took control of a neighbouring government-run children's library in January.