ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Pakistani commandos battled die-hard Islamic militants
holed up in a radical mosque Tuesday, killing an extremist cleric and dozens of
his followers in a daylong assault that ignited fiery protests and calls for
revenge by Islamic extremists.
The army said more than 50
militants and eight soldiers died during fighting that began before dawn, and
gunfire and explosions still could be heard late into the night. Officials said
troops were trying to clear militants from residential quarters next to one of
the compound's two schools.
Abdul Rashid Ghazi, deputy head of the Red Mosque, announces
the release of Chinese hostages during a press conference in Islamabad.
Among the dead was pro-Taliban cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who had been the
public face of a campaign by the Red Mosque leaders to use their students to
impose puritanical Islamic rule in the capital.
Ghazi's body was found in the basement of the women's religious school in the
compound after a fierce gunbattle, according to a senior Interior Ministry
official, Brig. Javed Iqbal Cheema.
Several security officials said Ghazi had been hit by two bullets and gave no
response when ordered to surrender. Soldiers then fired another volley and found
him dead, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they
were not authorized to talk to reporters.
Elite troops attacked the mosque after a nearly weeklong siege failed to
induce militants to surrender. Ghazi's older brother, Abdul Aziz, the mosque
leader, was captured last week trying to slip out dressed in a woman's burqa and
high heels as hundreds of people left the compound.
Officials declined to estimate how many people were still inside Tuesday
night, but a local relief agency said the army asked for 400 white funeral
The government had sought to avoid a battle, fearing heavy bloodshed would
worsen public discontent with President Gen. Pervez Musharraf. He is opposed by
Islamic hard-liners for allying with the US, and angered many Pakistanis by
trying to oust the chief justice.
Even as the fighting raged, more than 100 armed tribesmen and religious
students chanted for the death of Musharraf and briefly blocked a road near the
northwestern town of Batagram, police said. Some 500 students rallied in the
eastern city of Multan, chanting "Down with Musharraf" and burning tires on a
An opposition coalition of hard-line Islamic parties, Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal,
announced three days of mourning starting Wednesday in the North West Frontier
Province to protest the attack.
The anti-vice campaign by the mosque that preceded the siege embarrassed
Musharraf and underlined his administration's failure to control extremist
religious schools. Militants used the mosque as a base to send out radicalized
students to enforce their version of Islamic morality, including abducting
alleged prostitutes and trying to "re-educate" them at the mosque.
Ghazi's killing could provoke a "violent outburst" in the country, said Rasul
Bakhsh Rais, a political scientist at the Lahore University of Management
Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister long regarded as Musharraf's chief
political rival, agreed that might happen, but said the president made the right
decision in assailing the mosque.
"I'm glad there was no cease-fire with the militants in the mosque because
cease-fires simply embolden the militants," she told Sky TV from exile in
Britain. "There will be a backlash, but at some time we have to stop appeasing
the militants. We can't afford to keep appeasing them."
The United States backed Pakistan's decision to storm the mosque, saying the
militants were given many warnings.
"The government of Pakistan has proceeded in a responsible way," State
Department spokesman Tom Casey said. "All governments have a responsibility to
President Bush later called Musharraf an important ally in the fight with
extremists and said he was a partner in promoting democracy. "I like him and I
appreciate him," Bush said during a visit to Cleveland.
At least 80 people had been killed around the mosque since July 3, when
followers of the mosque's militant clerics fought gunbattles in the street with
security forces. Troops surrounded the compound the next day.
It wasn't clear how many people remained in the mosque compound, or whether
any were being held as human shields.
Officials said earlier that the militants had an unknown number of hostages.
But last week, some of those who left the mosque, including young women
seemingly as radicalized as the men, said their colleagues stayed of their own
free will and were prepared to die.