Islamabad: Pakistani commandos blasted holes in the walls of a mosque compound on 8 July with the aim of helping hundreds of women and children escape from the site where Islamist gunmen are in a standoff with security forces.
Troops have surrounded the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, in Islamabad since Tuesday, when clashes between armed student radicals and government forces erupted after months of tension.
At least 21 people are known to have been killed.
Government and military officials say revolutionary cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi has between 50-60 hard core militants -- some from al-Qaeda-linked Pakistani groups -- leading the fighting.
President Pervez Musharraf on 7 July gave the militants a ‘surrender-or-die’ ultimatum.
Ghazi retorted by saying he preferred “martyrdom”. In a statement, carried by Sunday newspapers, the cleric said he and his followers hoped their deaths would spark an Islamic revolution in Pakistan.
“We have firm belief in God that our blood will lead to a revolution,” wrote Ghazi.
His Taliban-style movement is symptomatic of the militancy and extremism seeping into Pakistani cities from tribal areas near the Afghan border.
As intermittent gunfire continued to echo around the compound, Religious Affairs Minister Mohammad Ejaz-ul-Haq, speaking at a news conference, said the Islamist fighters were “terrorists, militants, who are wanted within, and outside, the country.”
He put their numbers at 200-250, though Ghazi has said he has close to 2,000 followers with him.
The Lal Masjid has been a hotbed of militancy for years, known for its support for Afghanistan’s Taliban and opposition to Musharraf’s backing for the US-led campaign against terrorism.
The death toll from the conflict rose to at least 21 after a lieutenant-colonel died when commandos came under fire from the compound that also houses a girls’ madrasa (Islamic religious school) as well as the mosque.
NO FULL-SCALE ASSAULT
Security forces have refrained from mounting a full-scale assault because of fears for the hundreds of women and children who the government says are being held inside as human shields.
Troops began blasting holes in the walls in the early hours on 8 July to provide an escape route for those inside.
About 1,200 students left the mosque after the clashes began but only about 20 have come out since Friday. Two slipped through the breaches made by the blasts on Sunday to hand themselves in.
While some women and children may been coerced into staying, there are women who have been among the most fervent supporters of Ghazi and his elder brother Abdul Aziz, who was caught on Wednesday trying to escape.
Ghazi denied children were being used as human shields.
He told Pakistani television channels that more than 300 followers, mostly female students, were killed in overnight gunbattles. Information Minister Mohammad Ali Durrani said Ghazi was lying.
Water, gas and power to the mosque were cut and food was said to be running short. Security forces have occupied another city madrasa linked to the Lal Masjid.
Many Pakistanis support the action against the hardliners whose behaviour, including a vigilante campaign against perceived vice, raised concern about the spread of militant Islam.
Islamist politicians have called for an end to the siege and for Ghazi to release the women and children.