A suspected suicide bombing today killed at least eleven people and wounded forty three others at a hotel near Islamabad’s Red Mosque, after religious students occupied the mosque and demanded the return of its pro-Taliban cleric.
The explosion occurred soon after police fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of protesters who had occupied the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, which the government reopened to the public today – two weeks after a bloody army siege dislodged militants.
There was no claim of responsibility for the bombing, but Islamic militants will be suspected as behind what is the latest in a string of attacks to hit Pakistan since the army operation at the mosque in the Pakistani capital left at least 102 people dead.
Amir Mehmood, a witness, said the blast went off inside the Muzaffar Hotel, located in a market area about quarter of a mile from the mosque. He said he saw blood, body parts, and shreds of Punjab police uniform inside the hotel.
Javed Iqbal Cheema, a senior Interior Ministry official, said 11 people were killed in the blast, including seven police, and 43 were wounded.
Kamal Shah, another top ministry official, said initial reports suggested it was a suicide attack targeting police.
Earlier Friday, protesters had occupied the mosque after forcing the retreat of a government-appointed cleric who was assigned to lead Friday prayers.
Police largely stood by as the demonstrators clambered onto ladders and the roof, and began splashing red paint onto the walls to restore the mosque’s namesake colour after a government restoration left it pale yellow. They also rose a black flag with two crossed swords – meant to symbolise jihad, or holy war.
But street battles erupted when religious students and other supporters of the mosque’s pro-Taliban former clerics threw stones at dozens of police in riot gear on a road outside the mosque. After protesters disregarded police calls to disperse peacefully, police fired the tear gas, and scattered the crowd which mostly fled back inside the mosque compound.
The protesters demanded the return of the mosque’s former chief cleric, Abdul Aziz – who is currently in government detention – and shouted slogans against President Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Later a cleric from a seminary associated with the mosque led the prayers.
“Musharraf is a dog! He is worse than a dog! He should resign!” students shouted. Some lingered over the ruins of a neighbouring girls’ seminary that was demolished by authorities this week. Militants had used the seminary to resist government forces involved in the week-long siege that ended July 12.
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. He had spearheaded a vigilante, Islamic anti-vice campaign that had challenged the government’s writ in the city.
“Ghazi your blood will lead to a revolution,” the protesters chanted.
Over mosque loudspeakers, protesters were vowing to “take revenge for the blood of martyrs” although some other speakers urged calm after the unrest broke out.
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 Friday’s prayers, was quickly escorted from the mosque, as protesters waved angry gestures at him.
Friday’s reopening was meant to help cool anger over the siege, which triggered a flare-up in militant attacks on security forces across Pakistan. Public scepticism still runs high over the government’s accounting of how many people died in the week-long siege that ended July 11.
Many still claiming a large number of children and religious students were among the dead. The government says the overwhelming majority were militants.
Wahajat Aziz, a government worker who was among the protesters, said officials were too hasty in reopening the mosque.
“They brought an imam that people had opposed in the past,” he said. “This created tension in the environment. People’s emotions have not cooled down yet.”
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.