Pakistan boosted security ahead of a wave of protests by hardline Islamists expected today, a day after President Pervez Musharraf vowed to crush extremism following the deadly Red Mosque raid.
Military ruler Musharraf sparked fury among radicals by ordering the army assault on the mosque in central Islamabad, which was pushing for strict, Taliban-style Islamic law and, according to the government, held human shields.
The assault killed 11 soldiers and 75 people inside the mosque, most of them militants, although an army spokesman said 19 of the bodies were so badly burned “they could be anybody, any gender, any age.”
“The protest against the operation will not be on Friday alone,” vowed Liaquat Baloch, a senior leader of Pakistan’s main alliance of fundamentalist parties, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA). “They will continue across the country.”
He vowed that demonstrations would be held nationwide this afternoon and that prayer leaders in their sermons would speak about what happened inside the mosque. “The operation was purely political. It was designed to save the uniform of General Musharraf,” he said of the president, who now faces the worst political crisis since he seized power eight years ago.
Police posted thousands of officers in major cities, already on high alert for revenge attacks after a series of strikes in northwest Pakistan, including two suicide blasts which killed eight people yesterday. “Over 10,000 police have been deployed in the city as part of preventive security measures for Friday,” said Azhar Farooqui, the police chief of Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi.
A sombre but unapologetic Musharraf, in a televised address to the nation yesterday, called for moderation and pledged to root out Islamic hardliners with better military equipment and training. “Extremism and terrorism have not yet been eliminated, and we are determined to root them out from every corner of the country,” said the embattled leader, under pressure ahead of elections expected later this year.
Musharraf, a key ally in the US-led “war on terror,” also said he would beef up security forces along the border with Afghanistan, where Taliban militants are active, giving the troops extra tanks and guns. He appealed to the country’s 13,000 Islamic schools or madrassas, some of which have been accused of links to international attacks, to “teach the true values of Islam and in their (students’) minds take away extremism.”
But the body that runs Pakistan’s religious schools, Wafaqul Madaris, also issued a call for a countrywide protest, its leader Qari Hanif Jullandhari told AFP. “We will continue to back Abdul Rashid Ghazi’s mission against obscenity, vulgarity and for the enforcement of an Islamic system in the country,” he said, referring to the leader of the Red Mosque rebels, who died in the assault.
Islamists and some newspapers also raised fresh questions about the death toll from the eight-day siege of the mosque and the resulting raid. “There is a great deal of disquiet over the authorities’ unwillingness to give the exact casualty figures,” the News daily said.
Hardliners claim, without giving evidence, that between 400 and 1,000 people were killed and point to discrepancies in official figures of the number of women and children in the mosque at the time of the raid. Thousands of mourners turned Ghazi’s funeral in a central Pakistani village yesterday into a protest against Musharraf.
Al-Qaeda has urged Pakistanis to declare holy war on the US-backed government, a call echoed by the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan.
“The battle lines are clearly drawn now between the moderate and radical forces,” said Ishtiaq Ahmed, professor of international relations at Islamabad’s Quaid-i-Azam university.
“Recent attacks against security forces in northwest Pakistan tell us what is likely to happen in future.”