Pakistani commandos cleared the warren-like Red Mosque complex of all defenders today, ending a bloody eight-day siege and street battles that left more than 60 dead.
“The first phase of the operation is over. There are no more militants left inside,” Army spokesman Maj Gen Washeed Arshad said.
He said that the compound was still being combed for mines, booby traps and other weaponry.
At mid-morning local time today, intermittent explosions and gunfire were still heard from inside the complex in the heart of Pakistan’s capital that the army had raided before dawn yesterday.
The army asked reporters to prepare for a tour of the embattled site, indicating the siege was nearing its end. No details of where exactly the press would be taken were provided.
Relatives of young women, men and children who had been inside waited behind army barricades around the mosque or inquired at morgues.
The army said more than 50 militants and nine soldiers had died since the assault began, 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 Brig. Javed Iqbal Cheema said.
Several security officials said Ghazi was wounded by two bullets and gave no response when ordered to surrender. Commandos then fired another volley and found him dead.
Arshad said Ghazi’s body had been removed from the mosque and handed over to the Interior Ministry.
Elite troops stormed the sprawling compound before dawn yesterday after negotiations with the mosque’s leaders failed. Gunfire and explosions thundered over the city while “Operation Silence,” as it has been code-named, proceeded through the night and into today. The military has not said who or how many people remain in the mosque.
The casualties at the Red Mosque could further turn public opinion against President Gen Pervez Musharraf, who already faces a backlash for his bungled attempts to fire the country’s chief justice.
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 endorsed 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.
To protest against the siege, more than 100 armed tribesmen and religious students near the north-western town of Batagram temporarily blocked a road that leads to neighbouring China, police officials 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.