Pakistani troops combed the warren-like Red Mosque complex for booby traps and any remaining militants today after storming the compound and killing its pro-Taliban cleric.
“A combing operation has started. This is to ensure that all the area is cleared,” military spokesman Maj Gen Waheed Arshad said.
Asked if the fighting had stopped, Arshad said that if any militants emerged to fire at troops, they would be put out of action. He said three militants had been killed last night.
By mid-morning, intermittent explosions, but no gunfire, were still heard from inside the complex in the capital Islamabad.
The army asked reporters to prepare for a tour of the embattled site, indicating the siege was in its final stage. No details of where exactly the press would be taken were provided.
Relatives of young women, men and children still inside waited behind army barricades around the mosque or inquired at mortuaries in a search for their missing loved ones as the government’s siege of the radical mosque entered its second week.
The army said more than 50 militants and eight soldiers died in the fighting yesterday, including the mosque’s pro-Taliban cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi. The cleric’s body was found in the basement of a women’s religious school after a fierce gun battle involving militants, senior interior ministry official
Brigadier Javed Iqbal Cheema said.
Several security officials said Ghazi was wounded by two bullets and gave no response when ordered to surrender. Commandos fired another volley and found him dead.
Elite troops stormed the sprawling mosque compound before dawn yesterday and 18 hours later the army said it was still trying to clear out militants from residential quarters next to the school.
Gunfire and explosions thundered over the city while “Operation Silence”, as it has been codenamed, proceeded into the night and early today.
The casualties at the Red Mosque could further turn public opinion against President Pervez Musharraf, who already faces a backlash for his bungled attempts to fire the country’s chief justice.
More than 80 people have already been killed since July 3, when street clashes between security forces and the followers of the mosque’s hardline clerics erupted.
The extremists had been using the mosque as a base to send out radicalised students to enforce their version of Islamic morality, including abducting alleged prostitutes and trying to “re-educate” them at the mosque.
The US State Department backed the Musharraf government’s decision to storm the mosque, saying that the militants had been given many warnings, and US president George Bush reaffirmed his confidence in the Pakistani president in the fight against extremists.
“I like him and I appreciate him,” Bush said, also calling Musharraf a partner in promoting democracy.
To protest at the siege, more than 100 armed tribesmen and religious students near the north-western town of Batagram temporarily blocked a road leading to neighbouring China, police said.
And in the eastern city of Multan, more than 500 Islamic religious school students rallied, chanting: “Down with Musharraf” and blocking a main road by burning tyres.