Hundreds of religious students protested today at Islamabad’s Red Mosque and blocked Pakistan’s government-appointed cleric from leading prayers at its planned reopening, more than two weeks after a bloody army siege left more than 100 dead.
The protesters demanded the return of the mosque’s pro-Taliban former chief cleric, Abdul Aziz – who is currently in government detention – to lead Friday afternoon prayers, and shouted slogans against President Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
“Musharraf is a dog! He is worse than a dog! He should resign!” students shouted. Some lingered over the ruins of a neighbouring seminary that was demolished by authorities this week. Militants had used the seminary to resist government forces involved in the siege.
The crowd also shouted support for the mosque’s former deputy cleric, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who led the siege until he was shot dead by security forces after refusing to surrender.
Armed police stood by on the street outside the mosque, but did not enter the courtyard where the demonstration was taking place.
In a speech at the main entrance to the mosque, Liaqat Baloch, deputy leader of a coalition of hard-line religious parties, the Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), condemned Musharraf as a “killer” and declared there would be an Islamic revolution in Pakistan.
“Maulana Abdul Aziz is still the prayer leader of the mosque. The blood of martyrs will bear fruit. This struggle will reach its destination of an Islamic revolution. Musharraf is a killer of the constitution. He’s a killer of male and female students. The entire world will see him hang,” Baloch said.
Pakistan’s Geo television showed scenes of pandemonium inside the mosque, with dozens of young men in traditional Islamic clothing and prayers caps shouting angrily and punching the air with their hands.
Officials were pushed and shoved by men in the crowd. One man picked up shoes left outside the mosque door and hurled them at news crews recording the scene.
Maulana Ashfaq Ahmed, a senior cleric from another mosque in the city who was assigned by the government to lead today’s prayers, was quickly escorted from the mosque, as protesters waved angry gestures at him.
Today’s reopening was meant to help cool anger over the siege, which triggered a flare-up in militant attacks on security forces and widespread anger that a religious site had been the scene of violence.
Public scepticism still runs high over the government’s accounting of how many people died in the mosque siege, with many still claiming a large number of children and religious students were among the dead. The government says the overwhelming majority were militants.
Security was tightened in Islamabad ahead of the mosque’s reopening, with extra police taking up posts around the city and airport-style metal detectors put in place at the mosque entrance used to screen worshippers for weapons.
Militants holed up in the mosque compound for a week before government troops launched their assault on July 10, leaving it pocked with bullet holes and damaged by explosions.
At least 102 people were killed in the violence. Attacks by militants in north-western Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan have surged since the siege, killing about 200 others in suicide bombings and clashes, many of them security forces.