Islamabad: At least nine people were killed and dozens injured as fierce clashes erupted between security forces and armed students of radical Red Mosque and its seminary in the Pakistani capital yesterday.
Official and hospital sources said at least two paramilitary rangers and a policeman were among the dead, as seven hours after the fighting started around noon the two sides were still exchanging sporadic fire in the area around the mosque.
Clerics at the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, threatened suicide attacks to avenge the "blood of martyrs" after the day-long clashes.
The shootout followed months of tension over the mosque's increasingly brazen challenges to the authority of President Pervez Musharraf, most recently the kidnapping of seven Chinese citizens as part of an anti-vice campaign.
"The deaths of nine people have been confirmed so far and more than 140 wounded," deputy interior minister Zafar Warriach told a news conference.
"A decision whether to continue the operation will be taken after assessing the ground realities. It is the government's duty to provide protection to its countrymen," he added.
Electronic media reported that two seminary youth were killed and more than 50, many of them burqa-clad female students, were injured in crossfire or heavy teargas shelling by the police.
Red Mosque management claimed 10 of their thousands of male students were dead and more than 50 female students fainted or got injured in firing by the security personnel or heavy police teargas shelling.
A state of emergency was declared in local hospitals to cope with the growing number of casualties.
Stick-wielding seminary students set fire to the building of the environment ministry located near the Red Mosque and torched several vehicles in the parking area.
A senior interior ministry official Imitaz Qazi said the mosque students fired first on the security forces and they only retaliated.
He said talks were underway with the management of the mosque but the law enforcement personnel would remain deployed till the negotiations reached a satisfactory conclusion.
The central Aabpara bazaar and Melody market in the vicinity of the mosque were closed. Teargas fumes spread to the residential areas close to the mosque, affecting women and children and forcing many residents to leave their homes.
At dusk the administration brought in reinforcements of police and rangers, indicating possible major operation at night.
The Red Mosque's brother clerics, Maulana Abdul Aziz and Maulana Abdul Rasheed Gazi, announced over the mosque loudspeakers that the thousands of students were fully prepared to wage jihad against the government forces.