London cab driver leads religious cult in attempted coup

Faisalabad, Pakistan - The gun-toting gang marauded through the streets of the Pakistani city claiming the end of the world was nigh and that people should herald a new leader sent by God to save them on "Judgment Day".

"Our leader Shahbaz Khan is Imam Mehdi and he'll grace the world at 4pm after a severe earthquake. All Muslims are directed to contact him immediately," announced one follower, without a hint of irony, over a megaphone.

As the situation escalated, the armed "disciples", holding multicoloured flags and dressed in uniforms of traditional maroon shalwar kameez, took nearly 40 bus passengers and a senior police officer hostage.

After a shoot-out with police that left two of the religious followers dead and another injured, there was a two-hour stand-off before police tricked the group's leader into surrendering after promising, falsely, that he could meet Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf.

It has been claimed that the alleged leader of the uprising is a minicab driver from south London.

Until late last year, Shahbaz Ahmed, 39, a married father of three, was working for Courier Cars, whose modest offices are at Norwood Junction. Ahmed, 39, is a British passport-holder of Pakistani descent who also uses the names Shahbaz Khan and Shahbaz Ali. If found guilty of terrorist offences or blasphemy he could be executed in Pakistan.

Ahmed has been living in Britain for some 20 years: he initially worked for 10 years as a butcher but for the past decade has worked as a minicab driver.

Ahmed and a group supporting Riaz Ahmed Gohar Shahi, a Pakistani religious leader, lived until last September in a three-bedroom terrace house in Streatham, south-west London, which they rented privately for £900 a month.

Neighbours in the street looked upon the religious group as "troublesome" and "strange" and they were reported to both Scotland Yard and Lambeth borough council for their behaviour.

Ahmed's next-door neighbour, a 25-year-old Polish builder who would not be identified for fear of reprisals, said: "They were religious fanatics who always had meetings at which they sang loud religious songs. One would lead and the others would repeat what he said."

Several other neighbours, who also asked not to be identified, told how the group had turned the house into a centre for chanting disciples. Sometimes the chanting went on until 4am and they erected a marquee in the 30ft-long garden to hold religious meetings.

One neighbour said she had been given a leaflet encouraging her to become a follower of Gohar Shahi. The group's website supports chanting and meditation but distances itself from Muslim extremists, including Osama bin Laden.

Before his death three years ago Gohar Shahi claimed that he had met Jesus. He was charged with blasphemy in Pakistan in 1999 but fled to Britain. In 2000 he was given three life sentences in his absence.

There is no suggestion that leaders of the Gohar Shahi religion either organised Ahmed's actions in Pakistan or knew what he and his disciples were planning.

According to the Pakistani police, Ahmed claimed during his failed coup that he was the Imam Mehdi, a religious leader who some believe will appear on Earth shortly before the world ends.

Ahmed allegedly marched through the crowded streets of Faisalabad, an industrial city in central Punjab, with nearly 40 armed followers. Members of the public were ordered at gunpoint to acknowledge the appearance of Imam Mehdi. Most succumbed to the threats but one man and a woman were wounded when the disciples opened fire on a group that refused. Others were beaten up.

Police sources say the disciples then travelled in a lorry and car and on two motorcycles to Lahore, where they took over a private television station and announced "the resurgence of Imam Mehdi". When they were confronted by armed police the gunmen drove to the outskirts of the city, where they seized a bus and took its passengers hostage.

According to sources in Pakistan, Ahmed and his followers believe Mohammed to be the last of God's prophets but that the Imam Mehdi would appear before the Day of Judgment. In Pakistan Ahmed is said to have supported a free society in which a man could have sex with any woman of his choice. Among his disciples were at least seven married women in their thirties.

Ahmed is one of nearly 50 people arrested in connection with the uprising. Police also seized guns, computers, CDs and air tickets. The men face the death penalty or long jail sentences if found guilty.

Sources in Pakistan say Ahmed moved to London, along with his two younger brothers, after the death of their mother. He had been disowned by his family for being "disobedient and badly behaved".

Shah Muhammad, Ahmed's father, who lives in a village near Faisalabad, refused to discuss his son's actions. The Foreign Office says the Pakistan authorities are treating the suspect as a Pakistani national despite the fact that he holds a British passport. British Embassy staff have therefore not had access to him in prison.

The Pakistan authorities issued a photograph of a man they believe is Ahmed. Efforts by the Sunday Telegraph to confirm the identity of the man pictured were, however, unsuccessful.