The top-ranking cleric of a besieged radical mosque in Pakistan's capital Islamabad claimed today that government forces have killed more than 70 of his students, saying he and his supporters prefer martyrdom to capture.
Explosions and intense gunfire continued overnight and early today as thousands of troops circling the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, attempted to end a five-day standoff but held back from an all-out assault.
Although the government says 19 people had died since Tuesday, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the mosque's defiant cleric, told the local GEO television channel that more than 70 of his students had been killed by government gunfire.
"There are 70 to 80 bodies of our students," he said in a claim that could not be independently verified.
The siege has added to the woes of President Pervez Musharraf, who faces a gathering tide of domestic Islamic extremism as well as a popular backlash from his bungled attempt at firing the country's chief justice.
Authorities today were also investigating a possible assassination attempt against him, after shots rang out as Musharraf's plane took off from a military base near the capital.