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Pakistani troops move into militant area

Protesters blame mosque siege on leader

ISLAMABAD -- Thousands of soldiers rolled across northwestern Pakistan yesterday, a day after the president, General Pervez Musharraf, vowed to follow the storming of Islamabad's Red Mosque by eliminating extremism from "every corner" of the country.

Anti-Musharraf protesters took to the streets of every major Pakistani city to blame the US-backed leader for the violence at the mosque, some chanting slogans in favor of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

But there was a lull in the violent backlash from militant groups that had staged suicide bombings and attacks on foreign aid groups in reaction to the mosque siege.

Officials said thousands of soldiers were deploying to various parts of North West Frontier Province, which borders Afghanistan and where militant groups are increasingly active.

An army brigade was heading up the Swat Valley, 75 miles northeast of Peshawar, where a suicide car bomber killed three police officers at a checkpoint Thursday, said Mohammed Javed, the valley's top administrator.

That attack raised to 35 the number of people killed in bombings and shootings in the northwest since the Red Mosque crisis began July 3.

Television footage showed army trucks, some pulling heavy artillery, lined up on a road in the area.

The Swat Valley is a stronghold of a radical cleric who has pressed for the imposition of Taliban-style rule, much like the leaders of the Red Mosque.

Maulana Fazlullah, who has close links to a militant group outlawed for sending followers to fight US troops in Afghanistan in 2001, reportedly told supporters to prepare for holy war in response to the battle in the capital.

Asif Iqbal Daudzai, spokesman for the provincial government, said Fazlullah had broken an agreement to stop using FM radio broadcasts for antigovernment agitation. If he does so again, security forces "will react," Daudzai told Dawn News television.

Troops were also sent to Dera Ismail Khan, a town near the tribally governed Waziristan border region, a Taliban stronghold where Washington says Al Qaeda is regrouping.

Police said they raided a house in Dera Ismail Khan yesterday, arresting three suspected suicide bombers and seizing five explosives vests.

The military said it also deployed soldiers near Battagram, a northern town badly affected by a 2005 earthquake. According to aid workers and media reports, mobs broke off from a Thursday protest against the Red Mosque raid to loot and set fire to the offices of several international aid groups.

"Extremism and terrorism will be defeated in every corner of the country," Musharraf said. Madrassas, or religious schools, like the Red Mosque that inculcate violence among students will not be tolerated, he said.

More than 1,200 people chanted slogans denouncing Musharraf after they emerged from mosques after afternoon prayers in Karachi, the country's largest city.

In Quetta, about 200 protesters chanted "Long live Osama!" and "Long live Taliban!" as well as anti-Musharraf slogans. "It is an insult to dogs to call Musharraf a dog," one man shouted out.

Small rallies were also held in Rawalpindi, Lahore, Peshawar, and Islamabad.

Scores of family members have traveled to Islamabad from distant villages in hope of learning whether loved ones were freed, captured, or killed during the confrontation at the Red Mosque.

The government has said 102 people died in the violence, including 91 civilians and 11 military personnel. But many parents say they believe the government is trying to cover up a far higher death toll.

Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao said yesterday that the names of those detained, killed, and released would be posted on the ministry's website. The photos of the dead, he said, would be made available to the media.

But confusion still reigns, not least because of myriad, often conflicting, numbers cited by officials, as well as uncertainty over how many people were inside the mosque complex in the first place.

According to the latest official figures, 248 people inside the sprawling complex were wounded. An additional 246 people were still being detained by authorities.

On Thursday, authorities temporarily buried 72 corpses, including 19 charred beyond recognition, and said photographs, DNA, and fingerprints were taken of each. Those searching for the missing say the information was not being made available to them.

"I repeatedly went to Adyala Jail, the main hospital and yesterday to the graveyard, but nobody nowhere is telling me where my son is," said Gulfaraz Khan. He came from the northwestern city of Mardan and was waiting outside the center set up to help those in search of the missing.

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