Pakistani troops attempted to clear a women’s religious school after seizing Islamabad’s Red Mosque in fierce fighting that left at least 40 militants and three soldiers dead.
Troops stormed the mosque compound before dawn, and more than eight hours later were still trying to root out the well-armed defenders said to be holding about 150 hostages.
After last-ditch efforts to negotiate a surrender failed, commandos attacked from three directions about 4am local time and quickly cleared the ground floor of the mosque, army spokesman Gen. Waheed Arshad said. Some 20 children who rushed toward the advancing troops were taken to safety, he said.
Security forces captured 24 other fleeing people, Arshad said, without giving further details about those trapped inside. Another military official later said that 51 militants had surrendered or been captured.
The officer said troops had cornered the mosque’s chief cleric, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, in the basement of the school but held back from an all-out assault because a number of children were being held there as hostages.
Troops demanded four times that he surrender, but his followers responded with gunfire, and Ghazi said he was ready to die rather than give up, the officer said.
Militants armed with machine guns, rocket launchers and petrol bombs put up tough resistance from the basement of the mosque and fired from its minarets, Arshad said, adding that they also booby trapped some areas.
“Those who surrender will be arrested, but the others will be treated as combatants and killed,” he said.
Gunfire and explosions still boomed over the city.
Some 40 militants had been killed, Arshad said, adding that three special forces commandos were killed and 15 wounded.
The assault began minutes after a delegation led by a former prime minister left the area declaring that efforts to negotiate a peaceful end to a week-old siege had failed.
Clashes earlier this month between security forces and supporters of the mosque’s hard-line clerics prompted the siege. The religious extremists had been trying to impose Taliban-style morality in the capital through a six-month campaign of kidnappings and threats. At least 67 people have been killed since July 3.
The vigilante anti-vice campaign, led by hard-line clerics with alleged links to outlawed militant groups, has proved an embarrassment to President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, a key US ally in its war on terror, and underlined his administration’s failure to control extremist religious schools.
Ghazi told the private Geo TV network in a telephone interview about two hours after today’s assault began that his mother had been wounded by gunshot.
There was no immediate official confirmation of his claim but one of Ghazi’s aides, Abdul Rahman, later said she had died.
“The government is using full force. This is naked aggression,” he said. “My martyrdom is certain now.”
He said that about 30 militants were resisting security forces but were only armed with 14 AK-47 assault rifles.
Pakistan’s Religious Affairs Minister Mohammed Ijaz ul-Haq said foreign militants were among those fighting with the mosque defenders, quoting Ghazi. He did not give the numbers or their nationalities.
Today’s attack followed a botched commando raid over the weekend on the high-walled compound, centred on one of Islamabad’s most prominent mosques.
Yesterday, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf assigned ex-premier Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain to try and negotiate a peaceful end to the stand-off.
But Hussain and a delegation of Islamic clerics returned crestfallen from the mosque before dawn today after about nine hours of talks with Ghazi via loudspeakers and mobile phones.
“We offered him a lot, but he wasn’t ready to come on our terms,” Hussain told reporters waiting at the edge of the army cordon.
Rehmatullah Khalil, a senior cleric who was part of a 12-member delegation of mediators, accused Musharraf of sabotaging a draft agreement to end the siege.
He said Hussain had prepared an agreement under which Ghazi was to be briefly held in protective custody, and the government would agree to free the students. Only those being sought by police were to be detained.
“We were happy and hoping that the nation will hear a good news, but the government changed almost all clauses of the draft agreement,” he told The Associated Press. “We were stunned on seeing changes in the draft agreement, and we don’t know why the government did so.”
“The government is responsible for today’s bloodshed.”
Officials were not immediately available to comment on the claim. Although earlier Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim said Ghazi had wanted everyone inside the compound to be freed.
Several loud explosions were heard just as the vexed looking delegates were getting into their cars and sporadic shooting was also heard.
About two dozen relatives of people trapped inside the complex waited anxiously at the army cordon during the assault.
The government has said wanted terrorists are organising the defense of the mosque, while Ghazi has accused security forces of killing scores of students.
Ghazi said he had offered to show the mediators that they had no heavy weapons, foreign militants or other wanted people inside the mosque.
The siege has given the neighbourhood the look of a war zone, with troops manning machine guns behind sandbagged posts and from the top of armoured vehicles.