Pakistan: Red Mosque imam escapes in drag —almost

Security forces arrested Maulana Abdul Aziz, imam of the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad, as he attempted to escape covered in a burqa with a group of similarly clad women July 4. More than 1,000 of his followers surrendered as army and police troops backed by armored vehicles and helicopters tightened their siege of the complex. Authorities say Abdul Aziz will face terrorism and murder charges.

The government said women and children will be granted amnesty but the mosque’s clerics and all males involved in killings and other crimes will face legal action. Some hold-outs are said to remain in the besieged mosque. “They only want martyrdom,” said one young boy who surrendered. The mosque’s deputy leader Abdul Rashid Ghazi said he was prepared to talk with the government but added, “We will continue to defend ourselves.”

Clashes that left at least 16 dead began at the mosque July 3 when a group of some 100 religious students from the mosque encircled police stationed nearby and snatched arms from them, according to authorities. The subsequent siege at the mosque sparked street protests in Lahore and Quetta.

The violence escalates a six-month standoff at mosque, whose clerics have sent students to abduct alleged prostitutes and police in a Taliban-style anti-vice campaign. Some accuse Pakistani intelligence agencies of encouraging the crisis to justify prolonging military rule. (Arab News, July 5; Xinhua, July 4)

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