Islamabad: A Pakistani cleric holed up in an Islamabad mosque said on 5 July he and his student followers were willing to surrender, after three days of violence in which 19 people have died.
But authorities rejected his offer, saying his attempt to attach conditions was unacceptable and insisting he release women and children human shields.
Violence erupted outside the Red Mosque, or Lal Masjid, in the capital on Tuesday after a months-long stand-off between the authorities and the Taliban-supporting clerics and their thousands of followers, some of them armed.
There were intermittent clashes and several loud explosions through the day on 5 July. Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema said some holes had been blasted in the compound walls.
Hundreds of troops and police are surrounding the students in their fortified mosque in a leafy neighbourhood in the centre of Islamabad.
Cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi, speaking in a telephone interview from the mosque, said he and his followers would surrender if those who were not members of banned militant groups could go free, and if he could remain in the mosque with his sick mother.
“If they are linked to any banned organisation, it can be verified ... those who are not should be let go,” he told Geo Television.
Suggestions members of militant groups were among his students were propaganda, he said, adding: “I and my mother should be allowed to live in the mosque until I make some alternative arrangements.”
But the government ruled out any conditions.
“If he is sincere in his offer then first of all he should immediately release the women, girls and innocent children who are being kept there forcefully,” Cheema told a news conference.
“If he is ready to surrender with his students, if it is unconditional, then he should lead them out,” he said. “They should leave their weapons in the mosque.”
Many Pakistanis welcome the action against the militants, whose behaviour in recent months had been reminiscent of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Moderate politicians and the media have for months urged President Pervez Musharraf to crack down but heavy casualties in an assault on the mosque would be damaging for him. Musharraf faces elections later this year.
Ghazi’s elder brother and chief cleric of the mosque, Abdul Aziz, was captured on Wednesday trying to escape from the mosque in a woman’s all-enveloping burqa.
Authorities don’t know how many people are still in the mosque but Aziz, in an interview broadcast on state television on Thursday, said 850 students were there, 600 of them women and girls. He urged them to give up.
The government said many of those still in the mosque were being kept there against their will as human shields.
“A large number of women and children are being held hostage,” said Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim Khan.
The clerics and their followers launched an increasingly provocative campaign from January to press for various demands including action against vice. They had threatened suicide attacks if force was used against them.
The government has issued several ultimatums for the students to surrender and about 1,200 of them have come out, most on Wednesday. Water, gas and power supplies to the mosque have been cut and a curfew imposed in the neighbourhood.
The government estimates there are 50 to 60 hard-core militants among them, armed with automatic weapons, grenades and petrol bombs. Security officials say they might never surrender.
The Lal Masjid movement is part of a phenomenon known as “Talibanisation” -- the spread of militant influence from remote tribal regions on the Afghan border into central areas.