ISLAMABAD (AP) – The radical head of the Red Mosque, recently released on bail, called Friday for the enforcement of Islamic law across the militancy-plagued country during his defiant return to his prayer hall, where at least 100 died when Pakistani troops stormed the complex in 2007.
Pro-Taliban Islamists are on a roll in Pakistan, emboldened by the government’s decision to impose Islamic law in the northwestern Swat valley to appease militants who were fighting the Pakistani army.
In the latest move likely to alarm the West, authorities Thursday released Maulana Abdul Aziz, the leader of Islamabad’s Red Mosque, after a court granted him bail on the last in a string of charges related to the bloody 2007 siege and military assault.
Thousands of people crammed into the rebuilt mosque on Friday to hear Aziz lead prayers and deliver a rallying call for opponents of nuclear-armed Pakistan’s shaky democratic order.
“I tell you that you should be ready to make sacrifices for Islam. The day is not far away when Islam will be enforced in the whole of the country,” the bespectacled, gray-bearded cleric said, his voice carried on loudspeakers to crowds that spilled out into neighboring streets.
“What we have seen in Swat and the tribal areas is the result of the sacrifices at the Red Mosque: the students, the people who were martyred,” Aziz said.
The Red Mosque siege was a turning point in Pakistan’s slide into religious extremism and violence. Army commandos stormed the complex days after heavily armed militants holed up inside fought gunbattles with police and refused to surrender. The government says 102 people, including 11 security personnel, were killed. Aziz was arrested as he tried to sneak out of the mosque compound, which included a seminary for girls, dressed in an all-covering burqa worn by some Muslim women.
Taliban militants seized on the assault to launch a stream of suicide bombings, especially in Swat, which the United States worries has turned into another stronghold for allies of al-Qaida.
Aziz still faces charges ranging from abetting terrorists to illegally occupying a building.
Pakistan has a history of failing to successfully prosecute militants, many of whom are believed to have links with the country’s armed forces. On his release from house arrest on Thursday, he insisted his struggle for Islamic law was peaceful.