A radical Pakistani cleric was released from detention on Thursday and given a hero’s welcome at his mosque, declaring that those killed there in an army assault nearly two years ago did not die in vain.
The release of the former chief cleric of Islamabad’s Red Mosque, Abdul Aziz, will be welcomed by militants throughout Pakistan and took place days after the government effectively ceded control of a northwestern valley to militants to end violence.
“The struggle for the enforcement of Islamic law in Pakistan will continue,” Aziz told hundreds of cheering supports after they carried him aloft into the mosque.
“The sacrifices of the martyrs of the Red Mosque and Jamia Hafsa will not be in vain,” he said, referring to a women’s religious school, or madrasah, in the mosque complex.
More than 100 people were killed when commandos stormed the complex after a week-long standoff in July 2007, leading to a surge in militant attacks that has intensified in recent months.
The violence and spread of Taliban influence are reviving concerns about the stability of nuclear-armed Pakistan, an important US ally vital to efforts to stabilize neighboring Afghanistan.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ordered Aziz’s release on 200,000 rupees (US$2,500) bail. His lawyer said 27 cases had been filed against him and bail had been granted earlier in 25 of them while one case had been dropped.
The Red Mosque had for years been a militant hub in the heart of the capital with links to Pakistani Taliban strongholds in the northwest near the Afghan border.
Aziz was well known for his radical sermons, even calling for suicide attacks in the interests of his vision of Islam.
“Jihad, jihad,” shouted his supporters, including hundreds of young women, as Aziz, wearing a turban and with a long gray beard, arrived at the mosque on Thursday evening.
Aziz was caught trying to slip out of the mosque dressed in a woman’s burqa during the 2007 standoff with security forces, days before the commando assault. His brother, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, also a cleric at the mosque, was killed in the assault.
The army finally moved in to clear out the gunmen in the complex after a series of increasingly defiant actions by the clerics’ followers, including the kidnapping of police and of Chinese women they accused of prostitution.
After troops seized the complex they found a large cache of weapons, including machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, AK-47 rifles, landmines and hand grenades.
Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al Zawahri, called for revenge for the assault.
The government has struggled to come up with an effective strategy to deal with militancy, alternating in different areas between military offensives and peace deals.
But the militants have only gained strength.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, under pressure from conservatives, signed a regulation on Monday imposing Islamic Shariah law in the Swat Valley to end Taliban violence there.
The strategy of appeasement has alarmed US officials, while critics say the government has demonstrated a lack of capacity and will to fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
“The Taliban are taking Swat back to the Dark Ages and the Pakistani government is now complicit in their horrific abuses,” Human Rights Watch said.