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12 dead as Lal Masjid students provoke gunfight

ISLAMABAD, July 4(Daily Times):Twelve people were killed and around 150 injured in a daylong shootout between madrassa students and Rangers near Lal Masjid on Tuesday.

The administration confirmed that one journalist, a Rangers soldier, a businessman, madrassa students and bystanders were among the dead. Unconfirmed reports suggested that the death toll had mounted to 16.

The shootout began at around 11am after students of Jamia Hafsa and Jamia Fareedia, madrassas affiliated with Lal Masjid, marched towards the nearby Environment Ministry building and a security picket outside it. The students snatched weapons from police and took four officials hostage, according to police.

Rangers fired teargas to repel them, and students stationed inside the mosque responded by opening fire, witnesses said.

The students set fire to the ministry and Estate Office buildings in front of their madrassas. The buildings were almost completely gutted as fire fighters could not reach the spot due to heavy firing from both sides.

The Rangers had taken up positions in these two buildings and the nearby F G Girls High School after evacuating government staff from them on Monday.

The pitched battles continued all day. Students carrying batons mixed up with the general public who had gathered there to witness the battle and threw stones at security personnel.

Students armed with AK-47s and wearing gas masks took up positions behind sandbags on the roof of the mosque and bunkers inside the mosque courtyard, chanting "Jihad, jihad!". Armed madrassa students continued to roam around in front of the mosque and nearby roads after dark.

As gunfire rang out, loudspeaker announcements from the mosque urged "fedayeen" (suicide attackers) to prepare themselves. "Jihad against the government has started. Arrest these rangers and police officials wherever they are seen," said other announcements.

SSP Captain Zafar Iqbal said that the "Lal Masjid administration initiated the action and now we are into it". He said there were reports of 11 unconfirmed deaths and 16 arrests so far.

At least 148 people were reported injured, some with bullet wounds but most due to teargas inhalation.

The roads leading to Lal Masjid were closed and Appra and Melody markets remained closed throughout the day.

MMA MNA Maulana Shah Abdul Aziz visited Lal Masjid and made an abortive attempt to broker a ceasefire.

A five-member committee including Maulana Zahoor Alvi, Maulana Nazir Farooqi, Maulana Saeedur Rehman, Senator Telha Mehmood and Qazi Rasheed started negotiations with the Lal Masjid clerics to resolve the crisis on Tuesday night.

Among the confirmed dead were journalist Javed Khan, Rangers soldier Mubarik Hussain, student Muhammad Rafi, Muhammad Ijaz, a labourer, Umraiz Ahmed, a businessman, Ghulam Hussain, and an unidentified Uzbek national.

Reuters adds: Three journalists, including two westerners, were conducting interviews in the Jamia Hafsa madrassa for girls in the mosque's compound when the shooting started, and were believed to be still inside.

The government said it wanted talks. "Despite unprovoked firing by the students of Lal Masjid, the government still wants to settle the issue through dialogue," State Interior Minister Zafar Warraich told PTV.

There are some 5,000 students at the madrassas affiliated to the Lal Masjid, most of them from poorer parts of NWFP.
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