ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- After months of whipping his followers into a frenzy of anti-government sentiment, the head cleric at a radical mosque was caught yesterday trying to slip out of his besieged compound clad in a head-to-toe veil known as a burqa, police said.
The arrest of Maulana Abdul Aziz came as police and paramilitary troops backed by armored vehicles and helicopters surrounded the mosque, which was the scene Tuesday of a shootout that left as many as 16 people dead. More than 1,100 of Aziz's followers surrendered to authorities yesterday.
By nightfall, hundreds of students remained barricaded inside the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, some of them vowing to seek "martyrdom." Aziz had threatened suicide attacks by his followers.
Many of those who did leave the compound were female seminary students, and Pakistani authorities brought in female officers to search them. When the officers lifted one long black veil, they found Aziz.
The cleric, together with his brother, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, has long been a wanted man. But the pair rarely left the compound, and the government of President Pervez Musharraf apparently had not entered the site to arrest them earlier for fear of enraging Islamic militants. It was not immediately known whether Ghazi had escaped or remained inside the mosque compound.
Disciples of the brothers had challenged the government's authority over the past six months with a series of increasingly provocative actions, including kidnapping police officers and seeking to impose a Taliban-style code of behavior in the tranquil and relatively liberal Pakistani capital.
The vigilante campaign by Aziz's followers began in February with female students' seizure of a public library adjacent to one of the compound's two madrassas, or Islamic seminaries. They initially demanded that the government drop plans to raze illegally built mosques in the capital, but later expanded their demands, saying they sought the imposition of Sharia, or Islamic law.
The mosque compound has for months been an incongruous presence in a well-off residential neighborhood, less than a mile from the capital's diplomatic enclave and the president's office.
Masked men brandishing clubs and sometimes rifles stood guard atop its walls. Female students wore burqas, the all-encompassing black veils that are relatively unusual in the capital.
After the violence erupted, police sealed off the area, but also offered amnesty to any women and children inside, together with any men who had not taken part in armed attacks.
Musharraf had said previously that he did not order the compound stormed and emptied because he did not want to set off large-scale bloodshed. But he was criticized in some circles for appeasing the militants - an echo of allegations that his government has turned a blind eye to a buildup of Taliban and al-Qaida fighters in Pakistan's tribal lands bordering Afghanistan.
Other critics, however, pointed out that the standoff has diverted public attention from a political crisis over Musharraf's efforts to sideline Pakistan's chief justice, who has presented himself as a potential impediment to the president's plans to have himself re-elected by a rubber-stamp parliament this year before permitting general elections to take place.
Mubashir Zaidi and Laura King write for the Los Angeles Times.