Islamabad: Pakistani security forces arrested the leader of a radical mosque under siege in Islamabad as he tried to flee while disguised in a burqa yesterday, officials said.
Abdul Aziz was detained as he left the Red Mosque in Islamabad amid a crowd of women wearing similar attire, who were surrendering to the authorities a day after bloody clashes outside the building left 16 people dead.
"I can confirm his arrest. He was trying to escape with the girls and was wearing a burqa," Information Minister Mohammad Ali Durrani said.
"He did not offer any resistance," added a top security official involved in the capture. "He was the last in a group of seven women all wearing the same clothes. He was wearing a burqa that also covered his eyes," the official said.
"Our men spotted his unusual demeanour. The rest of the girls looked like girls but he was taller and had a potbelly."
Hundreds of female students at the mosque surrendered yesterday along with their male counterparts, but while the men were detained and searched the women were allowed to go back to their homes.
Liberal politicians have for months pressed President Pervez Musharraf to crack down on the clerics, who have threatened suicide attacks if force was used against them.
The government announced a crackdown after midnight between Tuesday and yesterday setting a surrender deadline, which was later extended, as firing from both sides subsided and voluntary exit from the compound began.
The authorities had cut off supply of electricity and water to the Red Mosque and the seminary.
There was no exact official figure about the number of people still inside the mosque and the seminary, but authorities estimated between 2,000 and 5,000 male and female inmates were present in the religious conclave.
The surrender of hundreds raised hopes for a peaceful end to the crisis. But possibility of an operation by the security forces to storm the compound remained alive as the hard core elements and the clerics commanding them were holding out.
Security officials said the militants inside included well-trained members of banned Nifaz-e-Shariat-Mohammadi outfit.
The group is based in some tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan and it had sent thousands of volunteers across the frontier to help Taliban before their ouster from power after 9/11 terror attacks in the United States.
Talking to a private channel by mobile phone, Red Mosque deputy manager Abdul Rashid Ghazi said they were in a "defensive mode". He confirmed reports that a group of scholars was trying to work out a settlement.
- With inputs from Agencies
A bastion of radical Muslims run by hardline cleric brothers
The Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, has long been known as a bastion of radical Muslims in the heart of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.
The red-brick mosque is run by two brothers, clerics whose father set it up in the 1960s.
The father, Maulana Mohammad Abdullah, turned the mosque into a headquarters of radical Muslims in the 1980s, when Muslim fighters battled Soviet occupiers in neighbouring Afghanistan.
The father and sons moved in the same Pakistani-based hardline Muslim circles as Osama Bin Laden, and when Abdullah was assassinated in 1998 his sons took up his mantle.
"Our meeting with Osama was before 9/11. After that we have not had a meeting or contact with him," Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the younger brother and deputy cleric of the mosque, told Reuters in an April interview.
A polite and soft-spoken man with a bespectacled face framed by a grey beard, Ghazi's appearance belies his zeal.
He and his brother have for years delivered fiery sermons at their mosque. They have exhorted followers to join jihad or Muslim holy war against US involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Books, newspapers, CDs and cassettes glorifying jihad have for years been sold at stalls outside the mosque.
In 2004, the government accused Ghazi of involvement in a plot to attack the presidency and the US embassy and arrested up to 10 Al Qaida suspects in connection with the plot.
Security forces tried to raid the mosque in 2005 during an investigation of Pakistani links with London bombings that year.