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Archive for Thursday, July 5, 2007

Top cleric captured at besieged mosque

July 5, 2007

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— Security forces besieging a radical mosque in the Pakistani capital captured its top cleric Wednesday as he tried to sneak out of the complex in a woman's burqa, and more than 1,000 of his followers surrendered.

But heavy gunfire raged into the night, and it was unclear if his capture would lead other hard-liners to give up the fight at the mosque.

President Gen. Pervez Musharraf deployed the army to subdue the militants holed up at Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, whose clerics have boldly challenged the government for months with a drive to impose a Taliban-style version of Islamic law in Islamabad.

The peaceful arrest of the mosque's prayer leader, Maulana Abdul Aziz, was a coup for the government. The firebrand Aziz has been a vociferous opponent of Musharraf and threatened suicide attacks to defend the mosque. His thousands of male students have been at the forefront of anti-government and anti-U.S. rallies.

Tensions exploded into a daylong battle Tuesday between security forces and militant students, some heavily armed and masked. Officials said 16 people died, including militants, security officers and bystanders. Mosque leaders put the death toll among just students at 20.

The government ordered the militants to lay down their arms and surrender by Wednesday morning as it positioned armored vehicles and helicopters around the mosque in a show of strength.

A security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to journalists, said Aziz was captured when he tried to get away disguised as a woman, wearing a full-length black burqa, and a female police officer tried to search him.

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