ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Pakistani
troops seized Islamambad's Red Mosque on Tuesday and attempted to flush out the
remaining militants entrenched inside a women's religious school in fierce
fighting that left at least 50 militants and eight soldiers dead, the army said.
A Pakistani army Armoured Personnel
Carrier moves towards the Red Mosque during a military operation in
Islamabad, 10 July. [Agencies]
The troops stormed the mosque compound before dawn. Eight hours later, they
were still trying to root out the well-armed defenders said to be holding about
150 hostages. Officials said at least 50 women were allowed to go free from the
complex. Some 26 children had earlier escaped.
Clashes this month between security forces and supporters of the mosque's
hardline 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.
Amid the sounds of rolling explosions, commandos attacked from three
directions about 4 a.m. 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 brought to safety, he said.
Two dozen others fleeing were captured by security forces, Arshad said,
without giving further details about those trapped inside. Another military
official, who spoke on condition of anonimity because he was not authorized to
talk to the press, later said that 51 militants had surrendered or been
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
The government, eager to avoid a bloodbath that would damage President Gen.
Pervez Musharraf's embattled administration, had earlier said it would not storm
the mosque so long as women and children remained inside.
The mosque itself has been cleared of the militants - who are armed with
machine guns, rocket launchers and gasoline bombs. They put up tough resistance
from the basement of the mosque, Arshad said, adding rebels also fired from
minarets and booby trapped some areas. "Those who surrender will be arrested,
but the others will be treated as combatants and killed," he said.
Pakistan's Religious Affairs Minister Mohammed Ijaz ul-Haq - quoting the
mosque's leader - said foreign militants were among the defenders. He did not
give the numbers or their nationalities.
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.
An associate of the mosque's chief cleric, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, told the
private Geo Television network that troops had seized the mosque but that
resistance was continuing from inside the religious school.
The assault was signaled by blasts and gunfire. About three and a half hours
after the assault started, Arshad said 50 to 60 percent of the complex had been
"cleared" but resistance continued in "various places."
Some 40 militants had been killed and between 15 to 20 had been wounded.
Arshad said three special forces commandos were also killed and 15 wounded.
Ghazi told Geo TV that his mother had been wounded by gunshot. There was no
immedidate 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.
As the fighting roiled on, emergency workers at an army cordon waiting for
access to the compound. Women police officers were on standby to handle any
female survivors or casualties.
A senior civilian official said troops had arrested dozens of people inside
the compound and that part of the madrassa had caught fire. The official
requested anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to media.
Tuesday attack followed a botched commando raid on the high-walled mosque
compound over the weekend.
On Monday, Musharraf assigned ex-premier Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain to try and
negotiate a peaceful end to the standoff.
But Hussain and a delegation of Islamic clerics returned crestfallen from the
mosque before dawn Tuesday after about nine hours of talks with rebel leader
Abdul Rashid Ghazi via loudspeakers and cell 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.