Thousands of people, most of them madrassa students, gathered amidst tight security in the Pakistani capital on Sunday to mark the first anniversary of the storming of the Lal Masjid in Islamabad by the army.
They assembled on a street near the mosque for a conference organised by hardline religious groups. TV channels reported that leaders of banned extremist groups like Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan and Jaish-e-Mohammed also attended the event.
Several clerics made hard hitting speeches criticising the arrest of former Lal Masjid cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz as well as the government's plans for reforming madrassas. The seminary students chanted slogans like "Allah-o-Akbar" (God is great).
Clerics said the conference was organised to pay respect to those who died when the army stormed the mosque in the heart of Islamabad after a siege in July last year. Participants demanded the release of Abdul Aziz, the reopening of Jamia Faridia madrassa and rebuilding of Jamia Hafsa madrassa in line with an order issued by the Supreme Court.
Both the madrassas are affiliated to Lal Masjid. Jamia Faridia was closed after the military operation while Jamia Hafsa was razed. Abdul Aziz was arrested at the conclusion of the operation while his brother Abdul Rashid Ghazi was shot dead. Over 100 people were killed in the operation.
Hundreds of people, most of them seminary students, poured into Islamabad last night from all over Pakistan to participate in the conference. More people arrived in the city this morning. Many of the participants waved posters with pictures of Ghazi and black flags.
Officials said over 4,000 security personnel had been deployed across Islamabad to prevent untoward incidents during the conference. A tight security cordon was laid in the area around the Lal Masjid and barbed wire barricades were set up to prevent vehicles from entering the area.