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Inside the madrassas of Lal Masjid
K J M Varma in Islamabad | July 12, 2007 22:34 IST
Stench of burnt flesh, battered walls and an eerie silence greeted the media a day after Operation Silence by the Pakistan security forces on Lal Masjid, even as officials examined bodies of the militants killed to ascertain if any of them were foreigners.
The structures of Lal Masjid and the girls madrasa attached to it with well-built quarters for two clerics, Abdul Aziz and his younger brother Abdul Rashid Ghazi, suffered extensive collateral damage which would take months to repair and renovate.
The official death toll was still put at 86 which included 11 security officials and 75 militants.
Defence spokesman Maj Gen Waheed Arshad, who guided the media around, stonewalled questions about what happened to hundreds of militants -- many of them women and children as well as foreigners -- who were believed to have been holed up in the besieged mosque.
He, however, said 44 special forces commandos were injured in the operation which ended Wednesday evening.
The Islamist alliance Muthahida Majlis on Thursday said it estimated 400 to 1000 people were killed in the operation.
It accused the government of secretly burying bodies in different locations. MMA also formed a committee to locate the missing people and asked the relatives to approach it.
The government permitted the media to cover the burial of around 70 bodies of unidentified people at a burial ground.
The bodies were buried after taking DNA samples. They could be taken out if the DNA samples of any of the close relatives matched with it.
Arshad said 19 of the 75 bodies were charred beyond recognition and efforts were on to establish the identity of the foreign militants.
The government has photographs of the foreign militants before the operation was launched but their bodies have not been identified, he said.
The government was keen to establish the presence of foreign militants said to be from al Qaeda and Taliban as it all along maintained that they made Ghazi a captive.
85 persons, including family members of Ghazi brothers, were saved from the complex, he said.
It was apparent that the 164 commando force deployed to storm the sprawling complex broke into it by blasting the side walls of the girls' madrassa during which a Lt Col was killed when he was shot by militants while planting heavy explosives to blow holes in the wall.
While there was hardly any structure in the complex which was not hit by bullets, the two rooms attached to the main hall of the mosque bore marks of heavy bombing.
Apparently most of the militants during the one-hand-half-day fighting retreated into the mosque perhaps hoping that they were safe. The entrance of the mosque was covered with thick black burnt marks while strong stench emanated from the two rooms and the spacious hall.
The two minarets of the mosque built in 1965 too suffered heavy hits of explosives as the security forces said they had to direct the fire to silence the guns of the militants from small openings in the middle of them.
The girls' madrassa, which perhaps was thrown open to the media for the first time, was a revelation in many ways. Built like a prison to house the burqa clad girls, whom many regarded as Jihadi women specially nursed to be the wives of militants or suicide bombers, the three story complex begins with four 4/3 ft small rooms with small windows at the bottom from where the girls would converse with the visitors.
"Just like the visitors facility at any jail where the prisoners would meet their visitors," Pakistan Defence spokesman Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad said.
The madrassa, which the government maintains was built on illegally-occupied land, has a basement floor besides ground and first floors.
The three floors together have medium sized rooms in which over 3000 girls were kept, perhaps like sardines.
It was in one of these rooms in the basement, not bunkers as described by the government, that Ghazi and his militants went down fighting. The bullet marks and smell of the burnt flesh provide telltale evidence of room-to-room fighting to secure the place.
A large cache of weapons including AK-47s, LMGS, Rocket Launchers, one suicide jacket with blood stains as well gas masks were displayed at the madrassa.
He said the militants damaged adjoining buildings by setting them ablaze and even the fire brigade was not allowed to extinguish the flames in which the national flag was burnt.
The militants inside the mosque had links with extremists in tribal areas and some parts of the NWFP, he said.
Musharraf said the government would extend support to the provincial government in its efforts to counter extremism and combat terrorism. The Frontier Corps, Frontier Constabulary, Khasadar Force and levies would be equipped with modern weapons.
They would be better trained and augmented. Even tanks and guns would be provided to them and this task would be completed within six months with the full backing and support of the army.
Apparently referring to protests announced by Waqaful Madaris, an umbrella body of hundreds of madrassas, against the government action, Musharraf appealed to the clerics to take care not to preach hatred and extremism in the name of Islamic education.
A vast majority of the people of Pakistan is moderate and they have been expressing their concern and anxiety over the crisis, he said.
There was pressure from the people on the government to act swiftly, he said.
He said the government showed patience and tolerance and wanted to resolve the crisis peacefully as women and children were inside the mosque premises.
The situation demanded prudence and not the use of force. The government's endeavour was to save lives, he said.