Mosque leaders defiant as surrender deadline passes

Leaders of a besieged radical mosque in Pakistan remained defiant today as a deadline calling for their immediate surrender passed, a day after clashes there killed at least nine people.

Leaders of a besieged radical mosque in Pakistan remained defiant today as a deadline calling for their immediate surrender passed, a day after clashes there killed at least nine people.

But more than 100 of their followers surrendered as army troops, some inside armoured personnel carriers, tightened their stranglehold on the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, in the heart of Islamabad.

The militants were ordered to lay down their arms and surrender by 11am (0700 Irish time), said Anwar Mahmood, the top official at the Information Ministry.

“Those who lay down their arms and surrender will not be harmed,” he said. “The security forces will not open fire first.”

As the deadline passed, the mosque’s deputy leader Abdul Rashid Ghazi said he was prepared to talk with the government but added, “We will continue to defend ourselves.”

Ghazi told a local television channel that he was not aware of any surrender deadline.

Military officials contacted by telephone near the mosque said more than 100 students, most of them young women, had walked out of the mosque compound and an adjacent seminary for women.

The events came after a day of bloody clashes in Islamabad at the Lal Masjid between security forces and militants living inside the sprawling mosque, which has been at loggerheads with the government.

The violence was sparked when male and female student followers of the mosque - some of them armed – rushed toward a police checkpoint.

The bloodshed added to a sense of crisis in Pakistan, where President Gen. Pervez Musharraf already faces emboldened militants near the Afghan border and a pro-democracy movement triggered by his botched attempt to fire the country’s chief justice.

Police and paramilitary troops closed streets around the Red Mosque and in the nearby government district, posting armoured vehicles in front of Parliament and mounting machine-guns on turrets.

Pakistani officials said nine people were killed in yesterday’s clashes: four students, three civilians, one soldier and a journalist were killed. About 150 people were reported injured, most of them by tear gas fired by security forces.

But Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the mosque’s deputy leader, said 20 of his students had been killed by security forces, including two young men as they were climbing to the top of the mosque for morning prayers today.

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