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Radical Lal Masjid cleric defiant on release

April 17, 2009 14:09 IST

Just out on bail, radical cleric Abdul Aziz, returned to the Lal Masjid mosque in the heart of the Pakistani capital, the scene of a bloody siege which left more than 100 people dead, and vowed to continue his campaign for enforcing Islamic law across the country.

Aziz, who appeared defiant inspite of his over a year long incarceration drove to the mosque in a motorcade late Thursday night and was greeted by thousands of charged supporters and students of madrassas.

The hardline cleric, whose purge angered radical groups like the Taliban, made his appearance along with Ahmed Ludhianvi, leader of the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba group that reportedly has links with Al Qaeda.

He told the media that he would continue his struggle for enforcement of Shariah or Islamic law not only in Pakistan but in the entire world.

"We will continue our struggle until Islamic law is spread across the country, not just in Swat. We support enforcement of Shariah in Swat and the day is not far off when Shariah will be enforced across the country," Aziz said.

The Lal Masjid siege was a turning point in Pakistan's slide into religious extremism and violence. Security forces stormed the complex in July 2007 after armed militants inside

refused to surrender. The confrontation almost 100 people, including 11 security personnel.

Among those who gathered to greet the cleric on his release after being granted bail by the Supreme Court were dozens of burqa-clad women.

Aziz's supporters carried him into the mosque on their shoulders and he later led the 'Isha' prayers that were offered at 10:45 pm instead of the scheduled time of 8 pm.

After his arrest, while trying to sneak out wearing a burqa, Aziz was slapped with 27 cases on charges like terrorism, murder and attacking government and paramilitary

officials. He has been under house arrest since July 2007.

Aziz claimed the Lal Masjid's campaign for Shariah was peaceful and criticised former President Pervez Musharraf for conducting a "barbaric" military operation that killed many seminary students.

He said the sacrifices of the "martyrs of Lal Masjid" would bear fruit and the Islamic system would be promulgated in Pakistan.

Pakistan authorities conducted the operation against the Lal Masjid after Aziz sent out vigilante squads to enforce Islamic laws and kidnapped about a dozen Chinese nationals and some police personnel.

After a standoff lasting several months, security forces stormed the mosque, killing about 100 people, including Aziz's brother Abdul Rashid Ghazi.

Asked by reporters if the activists of Lal Masjid will again take up arms, Aziz said: "If we are pushed to the wall, we would have no option but to defend ourselves".

Rezaul H Laskar in Islamabad