Madrasa suspects held in Islamabad

Police arrests six suspects in connection with the assassination attempt last week on Islamabad's minister for religious affairs.

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ISLAMABAD // Police have arrested half a dozen suspects in connection with the assassination attempt last week on the country's minister for religious affairs, according to the Islamabad police chief. Hamid Saeed Kazmi survived an assassination attempt on September 2 when unidentified gunmen opened fire on his government vehicle just yards outside his office in a busy neighbourhood of Islamabad.

Mr Kazmi, a soft-spoken religious scholar and politician who has been vocal against the Taliban and religious extremism, was shot in the leg and is currently in hospital. His driver was killed at the scene and a police officer, Ashraf Sial, who was critically wounded, died yesterday in a hospital in Islamabad. Syed Kaleem Imam, the inspector general of Islamabad Police, said the arrests were part of a big sweep carried out against terrorist suspects in the capital. "We have arrested 46 other suspects in the last few weeks."

Mr Imam said the arrests have helped foil major terror attacks targeting the capital. "The terrorists planned to target the parliament building, members of the parliament and National Defense University." Islamabad has suffered several terrorist attacks in recent years as the Pakistani military battles the Taliban and hard-line extremists in the country's north. Concerns have also mounted about the high number of madrasas, or religious schools, that have mushroomed in the capital and elsewhere. Islamabad district officials say there are 140 madrasas in the capital. Pakistani politicians have expressed concerns that these madrasas, mostly of the Deobandi branch of Sunni Islam, can provide safe havens to militants and terrorists. Islamabad was the scene of a bloody eight-day siege and military operation in 2007 when army commandos stormed a madrasa compound, known as the Red Mosque, which had become a hotbed of militancy in the capital. Its clerics and students had audaciously started challenging the writ of the government.

Mr Imam, the police chief, confirmed that several of the recent arrests came after raids on madrasas but declined to divulge further details regarding the identities of those arrested, saying it could affect ongoing investigations. Mr Kazmi's vehicle was attacked by at least two people on September 2. The driver tried to speed away to avoid the gunfire but lost control of the vehicle as it rammed into a tree. The driver was shot in the head and died immediately.

Sial, the police officer, was shot five times as he fought back. Mr Imam said the minister for religious affairs was provided with seven security guards and one gunman used to accompany him in his vehicle. However, he said a police escort vehicle was conspicuously absent at the time of the attack and had gone to have its fuel tank filled up. "The gunman fired four shots and covered the minister. That is why the assailants did not come near the vehicle," Mr Imam said.

The attackers managed to escape after the shooting. Mr Kazmi, who belongs to the Barelvi school of thought of Sunni Islam, had received death threats. While suspicion has been pointed at Taliban militants in the country's north-west, politicians and rights groups said militants in Punjab, the most populous and prosperous of the four provinces of the country, are also gaining strength. Sheikh Waqas Akram, an opposition member of the national assembly from Jhang, a district in Punjab that is considered a stronghold of a banned extremist group, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, said he had warned about dangers to the life of Mr Kazmi.

"Two weeks before the attack, threats and sermons against the religious minister were being announced in the mosques of three cities in Punjab," he said. "Why didn't the government take notice of it?" Mr Akram said tensions had been rising between Deobandis and Barelvis. The Taliban and most of the militant groups in Punjab are followers of the Deobandi school, a radical, revivalist version of Islam that approves of militancy and is popular in south Asia. The foot soldiers of the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan were mostly students of Deobandi madrasas.

Barelvis, on the other hand, believe in mysticism, revere saints and shrines and are considered to be tolerant and accommodating of other faiths. Mr Akram said in several Punjab districts, extremists were roaming openly in Toyota pickup trucks with blue lights on top, just like police vehicles. "Free movement of banned outfits is not being watched," he said. "Why such complacency?" Government officials, on the other hand, say they are being as vigilant as possible but also point out that the terrorist threat is enormous.

The police say they lack the numbers and weapons. Mr Imam, the Islamabad police chief, said the capital faced more than 250 security threats in the past six months. More than 90 security barriers and checkpoints have been erected in the city. Bushra Gohar, a member of the parliament, said the high number of security barriers made the residents feel more vulnerable and heightened their sense of insecurity. "They actually make me feel frightened," she said.

But police officials said such measures have become inevitable. "There is a need for collective effort. Police alone cannot deal with terrorism," Mr Imam said. "There is a war of ideologies."