A 6-month-long standoff between Pakistani authorities and followers of a pair of radical Muslim clerics erupted Tuesday into a shootout in the heart of the capital that left at least 11 people dead.
The confrontation at the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, coincides with a political crisis that has left President Pervez Musharraf with a precarious grip on power. Adding to a sense of chaos, record flooding over the last week in the south has driven hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.
Fighting around the mosque complex, which lies only a short distance from the presidential compound, parliament and many embassies, raised the specter of an all-out battle between security forces and radical students who in recent weeks have armed themselves with assault rifles and firebombs and fortified the mosque.
Police sealed off the area around the mosque, and a dozen armored vehicles were seen moving into the area at dawn.
The dead included a paramilitary policeman and a journalist. Government officials said dozens of other people were injured.
In the wake of the shootings, supporters of the students attacked two government buildings, pelting them with stones and torching cars in the parking lots.
Militants holed up in the mosque compound have demanded that Pakistan adhere to Sharia, or Islamic law. For months they have been staging hit-and-run vigilante attacks in the capital against video stores, alcohol merchants and massage parlors. They have also kidnapped police officers, usually releasing them unharmed later.
Musharraf has been criticized for not cracking down previously on the students, some of whom are female, but has said he did not want to trigger a bloodbath by sending police to overrun the compound. The radicals have threatened to unleash suicide bombers in the capital.
Some analysts believe the students’ Taliban-style tactics have bolstered the president during the ongoing political crisis, by allowing him to portray himself as the last bulwark against Islamic extremists in Pakistan. Musharraf is a key ally of the West in the fight against the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.
The Pakistani leader, who seized power in a bloodless coup eight years ago, has been under immense popular pressure to renounce his position as army chief and allow free and fair elections.
Tuesday’s fighting sent stray bullets flying and clouds of tear gas wafting into the surrounding residential area. Many people fled their homes.
Witnesses and government officials said the violence erupted when dozens of students, some of them armed, marched on police barricades set up near the complex. Police initially responded with tear gas, but shooting quickly broke out.
Abdul Rashid Ghazi, a cleric who presides over the mosque along with his brother, accused authorities of provoking the shootout.
The mosque standoff began as a dispute over government plans to demolish mosques built on illegally seized lands. It rapidly escalated, with the students’ occupation of a library becoming a rallying point for a large number of militant followers.
Pakistani authorities said they would seek a negotiated solution despite the outbreak of violence.
“We are exercising restraint and want the standoff not to escalate,” Information Minister Mohammed Ali Durrani said at a news conference.
However, members of a special anti-terrorism squad took up positions on nearby rooftops, and paramilitary troops moved into a school building next to the complex.
Authorities also cut electricity to the mosque and to the attached madrasas, or religious seminaries, which have about 5,000 students.
Special correspondent Zaidi reported from Islamabad and Times staff writer King from Kabul, Afghanistan.