Islamabad, July 4: Pakistani authorities imposed a curfew around a mosque today where 11 people were killed in clashes between religious students and security forces and ordered students in the mosque to lay down their weapons.
Violence erupted yesterday outside the mosque in the capital, Islamabad, which has become the headquarters for hardline religious students, campaigning for observance of strict Islamic law, who have been confronting authorities for months.Liberal politicians have been pressing President Pervez Musharraf to crack down on the Taliban-supporting students and their clerics, who have threatened suicide attacks if action was taken against them.
The government had refrained from using force for fear it could provoke suicide attacks, or lead to casualties among female students at a religious school, or madrasa, in the mosque compound.
Sporadic firing between paramilitary forces and the student militants inside the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, rang out all last afternoon and through the night in the heart of the leafy capital.
The Interior Ministry said nine people were killed but hospital officials later said the toll had risen to 11.
Deputy Interior Minister Zafar Warraich told an early today news conference broadcast live on television a curfew had been imposed in the neighbourhood around the mosque.
Speaking after Musharraf held a meeting with top security officials, Warraich said warnings would be broadcast over loudspeakers immediately for the students holed up inside the mosque to lay down their weapons and surrender.
No action would be taken against those who did but anyone who tried to fight would be shot, he said.
''A bullet will be responded with by a bullet,'' he said.
Asked if security forces would launch an assault on the fortified mosque compound, he said: ''We are not going to go inside and attack. We want them to come out and surrender.''
The violence comes at a bad time for Musharraf who has been facing a campaign against him by lawyers and the opposition since he suspended the country's top judge in March. He is also preparing for a presidential and general elections.
The clashes erupted yesterday when about 150 students attacked a security post at a government office near the mosque, snatched weapons and took four officials hostage, police said.Paramilitary forces fired teargas to disperse hundreds of students outside the mosque, and then came under fire.
Someone in the mosque later used a loudspeaker to call for suicide attacks, though a cleric there denied to sources that any such order had been given.
About 150 people were taken to hospital yesterday, 30 with bullet wounds, others suffering from teargas.
The 5,000 or so students affiliated with the mosque range in age from teenagers to people in their 30s, many from conservative areas near the Afghan border. They study under firebrand clerics and have been campaigning against vice and for Islamic law.
It was not known how many students were inside the mosque compound on last night but there were believed to be at least several hundred there. Earlier, many women students were seen leaving the mosque and anxious parents turned up outside to take their children home.Soon after dark, power was cut to the whole neighbourhood around the mosque and soldiers joined paramilitary troops sealing off streets.
Authorities said journalists should also leave the area around the mosque.
Trouble began at the mosque in January when students occupied a library next to their madrasa to protest against the destruction of mosques built illegally on state land.
They later kidnapped women, some from China, at two places they said were brothels. They also abducted police.
According to police sources, the trouble started after the students from the seminary snatched guns and wireless sets from the security guards at a nearby government office and blocked roads along the mosque. However, other reports said that the firing began when the people holed inside the masjid, concerned at the presence of the Rangers, who have been taking up positions around there since last week, opened fire.
The security forces then fired tear gas to disperse the hundreds of students from the masjid who pelted stones at them, while veiled women were on the roof of the Jamia Hafsa building, shouting anti-government and pro-jihadi slogans.
Rangers' Captain Masha Allah told mediapersons that the students of Lal Masjid initiated the incident by opening fire.
Charging the mosque authorities with initiating the firing, Federal Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao demanded the persons involved in the firing on the security forces from inside the mosque compound be handed over to the authorities.
''The government doesn't want bloodshed but it would not tolerate such incidents of lawlessness,'' he asserted, speaking on a private TV channel. He also demanded that they return the weapons and equipment they snatched from the security personnel.
The violence caused tension in the locality resulting in closure of the nearby busy Aabpara and Melody markets, and leading to a massive traffic jam as the contiguous roads were later blocked for traffic by the administration. People residing in adjacent areas have been directed to remain confined to their houses.
Although the exact casualties or the number of injured was not known, Islamabad Capital Territory Deputy Commissioner Chaudhry Muhammad Ali confirmed death of one jawan of Rangers, Lance Naik Mubarak Hussain, who was hit in the chest by a bullet fired by the Jamia Hafsa squad.
According to sources at Poly Clinic, three male students -- Nasaruminullah, Nasir Ahmed and Abu Huraira -- got injured in firing. A female student Uzma Yusuf was also reportedly injured, while one woman, who was not identified, was undergoing surgery to remove bullets in her back and hand.
Police constable Rab Nawaz suffered injuries in cross firing.
The News' Islamabad Bureau Absar Alam was also wounded when hit by a teargas shell and a CNBC cameraman Israr was also injured.
The latter was critically injured, but after he was operated on, doctors are more confient of his chances.
The violence ensued after six months of tension over the activities of the hardline clerics at the Lal Masjid, who has kidnapped several Chinese and Pakistani civilians as part of a freelance anti-vice campaign.