Saima Khan wants to die a martyr. Life is transient, she told her father in a telephone call last week, and the real glory is to sacrifice it for Allah. Her statement would be alarming at any age, but Saima is only 10.
As she spoke, rifle shots rang out, the acrid smell of tear gas drifted over Islamabad and hundreds of troops surrounded the pro-Taliban Red Mosque, a religious school complex in the heart of Pakistan’s capital where Saima was among hundreds of children being held as virtual hostages in a stand-off between militants and the government.
Saima and her 14-year-old sister, Asma, were embroiled in a struggle for the soul of Pakistan in which up to 70 militants died last week and more than 100 were injured, according to mosque officials.
Holed up inside the complex behind the lines of troops and razor wire, the children – many of them girls whose families had sent them to the mosque to receive a strict Islamic education – repeatedly rejected relatives’ entreaties to leave before a threatened army onslaught.
There was evidence that many had been brainwashed into a cult of martyrdom, and the authorities feared last night that some were being prepared to be suicide bombers. In barely eight weeks, Saima had been transformed from a religious but fun-loving girl to a jihadi, grimly craving martyrdom.
At the barricades, her father, Luftullah Khan, a shopkeeper, frantically pestered soldiers to let him rescue both his daughters. But when he got through to them on their mobile telephone, they said they preferred martyrdom to freedom.
“I spoke to my daughter. She said there was no food or water left. I tried to arrange a meeting, but she said, ‘We’re here; my dead body will be here. I will not leave my teachers’,” Khan said.
His bewilderment at her sudden transformation reflects that of a nation that can barely believe the events unfolding in the shadow of General Pervez Musharraf’s presidential palace.
Militant leaders said yesterday that 30 girls had been buried in a mass grave inside the mosque grounds. Two more students died in fighting overnight. The children attend the Jamia Hafsa and the Jamia Faridia, two local madrasahs, or religious schools. The militants have herded their students into the basement of the mosque.
Early yesterday the city was rocked by a dozen loud explosions as the army used shellfire to demolish long stretches of a 5ft wall that surrounds the mosque. Tear gas was fired from armoured personnel carriers, and soldiers provided heavy covering machinegun fire, but no effort was made to storm the building.
Despite their evident fire-power, the military, many of them drawn from special forces, were playing a waiting game. They wanted to avoid the bloody confrontation apparently being sought by the mosque’s firebrand leader, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who said he was determined to fight to the last.
Ghazi, who claimed that 1,800 children remained inside, said yesterday he had divided the boys and girls into two camps. “The boys are the first line of defence, then the girls,” he said. “They have all sworn an oath on the Koran that they will fight to the death.”
The combination of fighting and fanaticism was a stark reminder of Musharraf’s failure to rein in Pakistan’s militants, despite the apprehension of western allies about the advance of extremism in a nuclear power.
For months the leaders of the Red Mosque have unleashed a campaign of fear and intimidation in Islamabad, using their burqa-clad students as the shock troops of a moral crusade.
They raided massage par-lours, tore down posters of women, kidnapped alleged brothel madams and video shop owners and forced them to apologise for their “immorality” at televised press conferences. Last week Musharraf finally decided to clamp down and demonstrate that his government, which has presented itself as a bastion of “enlightened moderation”, was prepared to confront the extremists on its doorstep.
Musharraf told Pakistan televi-sion yesterday that he was prepared to raise the stakes with the militants: “People hiding in the Red Mosque should come out, otherwise they will get killed. Action will be taken against them if they don’t come out.”
Musharraf, considered a key ally of the West in the war on terror, has been bitterly criticised by Pakistani moderates, who feel his refusal to return the country to civilian leadership after eight years of military rule has fostered radicalism.
They argue that his decision to exile the two country’s two most prominent politicians, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, has weakened democratic institutions and strengthened the hold of the militants.
There are fears among western leaders that Pakistan could implode into a bitter battle between secular and the hard-line religious groups, becoming another failed state where Al-Qaeda can thrive.
The militants provided a stark reminder of their power on Friday when a burst of gunfire from a rooftop was reported to have been aimed at Musharraf’s plane as it took off from an airfield in Rawalpindi. Security officials said later they had found two antiaircraft guns and a sub-ma-chinegun with a telescopic sight. Musharraf has already survived at least three attempts to kill him.
The Red Mosque first earned a reputation for militancy in the 1980s when its founder, Maulana Abdullah, won favour from the military dictator Zia ul Haq, who encouraged Pakistanis to join a jihad, or holy war, against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. Senior intelligence officers prayed at the mosque and the cleric forged strong links with Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban regime in Kabul that sheltered him.
When Abdullah was assassinated, the mosque was taken over by his two sons, Ghazi and Maulana, who was captured last week as he tried to flee disguised in a burka.
They called for jihad against the United States, supported the Taliban and linked up with militants in deeply conservative tribal areas on the Afghan border. The current conflict began after the authorities warned the mosque that it had illegally seized government land and must give it up. Its leaders responded in March by sending in burqa-clad women armed with Kalashnikov rifles to occupy a government-run children’s library next door.
Last month Maulana reached the point of no return when his followers kidnapped nine Chinese women, including six acu-puncturists and masseuses, denouncing them as prostitutes. China, which is Pakistan’s closest military ally, registered a formal complaint and demanded protection for its nationals.
Troops from the Pakistan Rangers, special forces and elite female paramilitary commandos took up positions around the complex to stop any further attempts by the militants to enforce religious law. Surrounding roads were sealed and the mosque’s supplies of food and ammunition were cut off.
On Tuesday the confrontation finally turned violent as militant students threw stones and fired shots at soldiers, who retaliated with volleys of tear gas.
As fighting escalated throughout the week, Musharraf kept a restraining hand on his forces. “We have reports that women and children have been locked in the basement floors. If we blow any of the walls, the whole building would collapse on them,” said one officer.
For one family at least there was a happy ending of sorts. As a gun battle raged late on Friday, with snipers on the roof of the mosque forcing the army back to its lines 100 yards away, Khan, the father who had been pleading with his two daughters to leave, called them on their mobile phone and told them their mother was outside. She had been taken ill and lay unconscious on the pavement, he said.
It was a lie but it worked. The two girls quickly left the compound and found their waiting father in the crowd. “I’m taking them back to our village,” said Khan. “They were ready for martyrdom and they’re very angry with me. I’m just happy I’ve got my daughters back, and sorry for those whose daughters are still in there.”
Saima, in a bitter, fanatical voice that belied her 10 years, told The Sunday Times her father had cheated her of martyrdom. “The teachers taught us about martyrdom and that it is a great achievement,” she said.
“I could see the fighting was in front of me and I could understand that we would die. I felt real anger about what my father did. He tricked me.”
Additional reporting: Suzanna Koster
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