ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- The Red Mosque became a flashpoint for renewed violence yesterday as authorities attempted to reopen it for Muslim prayers, with militants battling police and an apparent suicide blast nearby killing at least 13 people.
The mosque in the heart of the capital was the scene just over two weeks ago of a raid by commandos who seized the compound from the heavily armed followers of a pair of radical clerics. More than 100 people died, and a wave of reprisal attacks by militants in subsequent days left another 180 people dead.
The confrontation with militants, including Taliban- and al-Qaida-allied extremists based in the tribal areas straddling the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, has placed heavy new pressure on President Pervez Musharraf.
The Pakistani leader was already struggling with a burgeoning pro-democracy movement and the Supreme Court's reinstatement this month of the chief justice, whom he had suspended in an apparent effort to fend off legal challenges to his re-election plans.
Pakistani authorities had expressed hopes that renovating the mosque and reopening it for prayers would soothe militants' anger and help lay the episode to rest. This proved to be a major miscalculation.
Protesters, many clad in traditional prayer caps, ejected a government-appointed cleric when he attempted to preside over Friday prayers, the most important of the Muslim week. A crowd outside the compound hurled stones at riot police, who responded with volleys of tear gas.
The clashes erupted only a day after government officials had showed off repairs to the battle-scarred house of worship, including a fresh new coat of pale-yellow paint and the painstaking patching of bomb craters and bullet holes. An adjacent seminary was demolished because, according to the government, the fighting had left it structurally damaged and unsafe.
Police had set up metal detectors to check those arriving for Friday prayers. But the display of fury that followed appeared to catch them by surprise.
As worshipers flooded the compound, protesters scaled rooftops to inscribe the mosque's Urdu-language name, Lal Masjid, on its dome. In a gesture of defiance, they splashed red paint on the walls of the mosque, which was named for its original red-brick exterior. Others raised the mosque's one-time standard, a black flag inscribed with the Muslim declaration of faith.
The explosion, which took place several hours into the confrontation, occurred on the edge of busy Aabpara Market, a few hundred yards from the mosque compound. The blast went off close to police barricades blocking the way to the mosque, and most of those killed and injured were police officers.
It shattered shop windows, left blood pooled in the street and sent passers-by fleeing in panic. A senior Interior Ministry official, Kamal Shah, told reporters the blast was believed to have been a suicide attack, with security forces as its principal target. Dozens were also injured.
By evening, protesters had been dispersed and police were again in control of the compound, which sits in the middle of an upscale residential neighborhood in the capital. Police said about 50 protesters were arrested.
The U.S. Embassy warned American citizens to avoid the vicinity of the mosque, which is only a short distance from Islamabad's diplomatic enclave, the presidential building and the Parliament.
The mosque protesters demanded the reinstatement of former chief cleric Abdul Aziz, who tried during the early days of the weeklong siege to flee the mosque compound disguised as a woman, in an all-enveloping cloak and high-heeled sandals. He is now in the custody of Pakistani authorities.
Mubashir Zaidi and Laura King write for the Los Angeles Times.