Fighting ends at Pakistan mosque

Updated: 2007-07-12 00:28

Pakistani commandos cleared the warren-like Red Mosque complex of all its die-hard defenders Wednesday, following an assault that ended a bloody eight-day siege and left more than 80 dead, including a pro-Taliban cleric.

Abdul Rashid Ghazi, deputy head of the Red Mosque, announces the release of Chinese hostages during a press conference in Islamabad. Students from a radical mosque kidnapped and then released Saturday nine people from an alleged brothel in the Pakistani capital, a mosque leader and officials said.[AFP]

Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad said the compound was still being combed for mines, booby traps and other weaponry.

"The first phase of the operation is over. There are no more militants left inside," Arshad said in a telephone interview.

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz told reporters that no bodies of women and children had been found inside the sprawling complex and said the probability such bodies would be found during the "mopping up" operation was low.

"The major group of women was all together and came out all together," he said, referring to 27 women and three children who emerged from the mosque Tuesday.

"I think it's already ended. Now it's mopping up," he said. "The operation is over. Everybody who was inside is out."

More than 50 militants and 10 soldiers were killed and 33 wounded in the final, 35-hour assault by the elite Special Services Group which began early Tuesday, the army said. The dead including the mosque's pro-Taliban cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi.

Commandos went in after unsuccessful attempts to get the mosque's militants to surrender to a weeklong siege mounted by the government following deadly street clashes July 3 with armed supporters at the complex in the heart of Pakistan's capital.

The extremists had been using 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 compound.

An army officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said troops moved from room to room in basements of the compound, blowing up foxholes where militants had been entrenched.

A photographer took an image of one apparent militant, naked from the waist up, being led from the mosque to a nearby interrogation center by two commandos.

Relatives of young women, men and children who had been in the mosque waited behind army barricades and inquired at morgues or a sports stadium where authorities set up an information center for those seeking missing loved ones.

"I am looking for my son who was studying at the madrassa, but I don't know whether he is alive," said Jan Mohammed, 42, whose son, Mohammed Khan, could not leave the mosque during the siege. He was among about 100 parents who were gathered at the sports stadium.

Ghazi's body was found in the basement of a women's religious school after a fierce gunbattle between government troops and militants, said Brig. Javed Iqbal Cheema, a senior Interior Ministry official.

Several security officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, 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 handed over to the Interior Ministry. The bodies of others would be taken away after the end of the operation, he said.

Cheema said the body has been taken for burial in Ghazi's native village of Rojhan in southwestern Pakistan. His brother, Abdul Aziz, the mosque's chief who was arrested trying to escape from the complex last week, would be allowed to attend the funeral.

The military announced that about 1,300 people had escaped or otherwise left the compound since July 3. Authorities took an unknown number into custody, while others, mostly young students, have returned to their homes.

Arshad said the media would be taken on a tour of the mosque complex, but probably not until Thursday.

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.

Following several fiery anti-government protests Tuesday, about 500 people chanting "Death to Musharraf!" rallied for an hour Wednesday in the northwest frontier city of Peshawar.

"This (mosque attack) is part of our government's action against religious elements to please America," said Shabbir Khan, a lawmaker from an opposition Islamic party, at the demonstration.

About 15 other Islamic opposition lawmakers gathered in front of the Supreme Court in Islamabad, blaming Musharraf for Pakistan's troubles, including the mosque attack, and calling for his resignation.

In neighboring Afghanistan, a senior Taliban commander, Mansoor Dadullah, urged Muslims to launch suicide attacks on Pakistani security forces, calling the assault "a cruel act."

"I would have sent 10,000 mujahedeen to support the (Red Mosque) students but we are busy in Afghanistan and Islamabad is far from Afghanistan. I wished to go myself to support them," he told The Associated Press by telephone.

Several editorials in mainstream newspapers said Musharraf had no choice but to confront the militants.

"The decision to launch the final assault was not an easy one, but given the circumstances there was nothing else that the government could really do," said the English-language paper The News.

But it questioned how the militants had managed to find a haven "inside the heart of Islamabad."

"Surely this is a disturbing indictment of the failure of the law enforcement agencies to keep track of the movement of such elements," it said.

Another English-language daily, Dawn, said that "no tears will be shed over the death of the well-armed militants," praising the government for exercising "utmost restraint" in the standoff.

The State Department endorsed the Musharraf government's decision to storm the mosque, saying that the militants had been given many warnings, and President Bush reaffirmed his confidence in the Pakistani president in the fight against extremists.

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