ISLAMABAD, July 12: Local authorities buried the civilian dead of the Lal Masjid battle in the darkness of night in a city graveyard, with only grave diggers and journalists as witnesses and no relatives of the dead in attendance.

Stench filled the air as 69 coffins were brought around 3:30am Thursday to a long line of graves, indicating that the bodies inside were badly decomposed. Burial started as the call to Fajr prayers rose from mosques around the graveyard in H-11 sector, opposite the Police Lines Headquarters.

"We were called here around 6pm (Wednesday) to dig graves and we are still at it," grave digger Mushtaq told me when I arrived at the graveyard around 2am Thursday to cover the story.

Deputy Commissioner Islamabad Chaudhry Mohammad Ali said the 73 people who died during the military operation were being buried temporarily. But he could not give their gender or the total number of fatalities from the Lal Masjid.

"The corpses would be handed over to their relatives whenever they contact us," he said, adding that complete record of the dead, with their photographs and DNA test results had been preserved.

All coffins were numbered but no names appeared on them, indicating the person being buried was not identified. A district official though said three bodies had been handed to their relatives from Bajaur.

Sanitary staff of the Capital Development Authority engaged in burying the dead finished their grim task after dawn.

Police trucks had brought the coffins from the Police Academy at Soan where the bodies were washed and put in coffins.

Water tankers were used to wash the bodies as two teams prepared shrouds and coffins for them.

When police trucks unloaded the coffins at the graveyard, the stench arising from them was so strong that the media persons and other people present there had to move away.

Most of the bodies were blackened and decomposed. "Legs and arms of some of the dead lay separately in the coffin while some were headless," one witness said.

It looked to some witnesses that more than one body had been put in a coffin but the authorities present there strongly denied it.

Work on digging the graves at the H-11 graveyard had started soon after the army finished its clean up operation in Lal Masjid late Wednesday evening. But its slow pace made the authorities call about 40 labourers from nearby Sabzi Mandi to assist the grave diggers.

As there is no definite word on how many died in the week-long skirmishes and the final assault on the militants holed up in the Masjid on Tuesday it is not sure the last of the dead has been buried.

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