Shooting breaks out at radical mosque in Pakistan

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The Independent Online

Security forces clashed with militants outside a radical mosque in the Pakistani capital, triggering gunfire that left one soldier dead and several students and troops injured.

The battle in Islamabad marked a major escalation in a stand-off at the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, whose clerics have challenged the military-led government by mounting a vigilante anti-vice campaign in Islamabad.

Trouble began when student followers of the mosque, including young men with guns and dozens of women wearing black burqas, rushed toward a nearby police checkpoint.

Police and paramilitary Rangers fired tear gas and, as the students retreated, an Associated Press photographer saw at least four male students, some of them masked, fire shots toward security forces about 200 yards away.

Gunfire was also heard from the police position.

A man used the mosque's loudspeakers to order suicide bombers to get into position.

"They have attacked our mosque, the time for sacrifice has come," the man said.

An hour later, dozens of students were patrolling the area around the mosque, and sporadic shots were still heard. There was no sign of security forces, who have massed in the area in recent weeks, moving in on the mosque.

Some of the students carried gas masks and several were seen with gasoline-filled bottles and Molotov cocktails. About a dozen were armed with guns, including AK-47 assault rifles.

Dozens of stone-throwing students shattered windows of a government building near the mosque, chanting, "Taliban, long live Taliban," a reference to Afghanistan's radical Islamic insurgents.

Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the mosque's deputy leader, said the Rangers sparked the trouble by erecting barricades near the mosque.

"The government is to be blamed for it," he said.

When asked about the presence of armed students at his mosque, Ghazi said they "are our guards".

One paramilitary soldier hit in the clash died later at a hospital, Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao said.

A doctor at the nearby Polyclinic Hospital said that about 60 people had been taken there for treatment following today's clash. Most were suffering from the effects of tear gas, but they also included several students - both male and female - with bullet wounds, he said.

The doctor, said two members of the security forces were also being treated at the hospital for gunshot wounds.

Authorities have been at loggerheads with the mosque for months over a land dispute and after its followers began a campaign to impose their version of Islamic law in the capital.