Pakistan quick to clean the blood from Red Mosque

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The Independent Online

Shattered minarets, smouldering buildings and bullet-scarred walls reveal the bitter battle waged between Pakistani troops and armed militant students for Islamabad's Red Mosque.

As Pakistan's military authorities finally granted access to the ruined complex, known locally as Lal Masjid, it became immediately clear they had done everything they could to sanitise this battle scene in the heart of the nation's capital in which at least 108 people were killed. For all the blackened walls, for all the hundreds of spent cartridge cases heaped together in a pile, there was not a glimmer of the human cost of the battle. In the time since the authorities captured the mosque they had been able to ensure that the public would not see one drop of blood, not a scrap of tissue.

"It has been cleared of bodies and we have cleaned the blood. We have cleaned it out," said Major-General Waheed Arshad, the army's spokesman, as he led the way through the sometimes choking rooms. "We did not want to show grisly things."

Indeed, to get a sense of the human toll of this week-long siege and the clash between the government of General Pervez Musharraf and a radical cleric and hundreds of his young students, one needed to visit a cemetery on the outskirts of the city. There, close to the city's police academy, the bodies of around 70 militants were buried at first light, in shallow, unmarked graves. Fingerprints, DNA samples and photographs were taken to help relatives identify the bodies and rebury them at a later date.

The authorities have been keen to stress that the 80 or so people killed in the final stages of the military operation at the Lal Masjid were well-trained and well-armed fighters rather than just students at the mosque's madrassas. When they took the media to visit the mosque, they displayed a cache of weapons and arms which they said had been hoarded by the militants. The arsenal included rocket-propelled grenades, heavy machineguns, grenades and semi-automatic weapons as well as an array of home-made explosives. Asked why the militants had not used these weapons against the army commandos, the military officials on hand were unable to say. "The militants were all over [the complex]," said Maj-Gen Arshad.

He also said that two scorched buildings were where two suicide-bombers had killed themselves and others in the final hours of the siege - the first time he had claimed the militants had resorted to such tactics.

The army's reluctance to answer crucial questions about the operation has led to much speculation in the local media that the authorities are seeking to hide some details of so-called Operation Silence. Reporters have persistently questioned the army about its claims that the militants were holding hostages.

These claims were also dismissed by a female student who spent seven days in the besieged mosque and only surrendered on the final day with a group of women and children, at the insistence of the mosque's cleric, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who was later killed. At her family's small home in a poor district of Islamabad, Asma Mazher, said the students had only 15 AK-47 rifles and home-made petrol bombs and that there were no hostages. "If we had those types of weapons [that the army put on display] we would have used them. We would not have surrendered," she said.

The teenager claimed the mosque had done nothing to provoke the government but that when the army started to clear the complex the students decided to fight to the death. Asked if she was glad to have survived the ordeal, she replied: "I lived there. I would rather have died there."

Meanwhile, at the funeral of Mr Ghazi, held yesterday morning at his ancestral village in the Punjab, the cleric's brother delivered a fiery graveside speech in which he predicted the bloodshed at the Lal Masjid would cause a backlash. Maulana Abdul Aziz, who was arrested last week trying to escape from the mosque dressed in a burka, said the deaths would help trigger an "Islamic revolution".

"Whatever happened in the past days is not hidden from anyone. God willing, Pakistan will have an Islamic revolution soon. The blood of martyrs will bear fruit," he said.

Hours later such claims were dismissed by General Musharraf in a televised address. He vowed to crush extremists throughout Pakistan and move against religious schools. "Terrorism and extremism has not ended in Pakistan. But it is our resolve that we will eliminate extremism and terrorism wherever it exists," he said. "Extremism and terrorism will be defeated in every corner of the country."

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