Security forces close in on besieged mosque in Pakistan


Islamabad : Pakistani helicopter gunships and armoured personnel carriers closed in on the besieged Lal Masjid to flush out armed militants holed out inside the Islamabad mosque Thursday hours after blasting open an entrance gate in a pre-dawn assault.

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Gunshots rang out through the area after armoured personnel carriers rolled towards the fortified mosque compound that was hit by "warning" detonations just before dawn, followed by the surrender of small groups of religious students, DPA reported.

"Warning explosions were set off and armoured personnel carriers made an advance amid gunfire and tear-gas shelling but they did not enter the mosque compound," a senior official told DPA on condition of anonymity.

Security forces launched the brief pre-dawn assault to pressure the bunkered militant students to lay down their arms and surrender. A gate of the Lal Masjid compound was also blown up in the half-hour assault.

At least 66 students approached the authorities by mid-day Thursday, taking the total number of those surrendering in the last couple of days to more than 1,200.

The curfew break was announced after complaints of shortages of food by households in the periphery of the mosque. However, streets leading to the Lal Masjid compound remained barricaded with a heavy presence of soldiers.

The renewed assault came after the Wednesday night arrest of Lal Masjid's chief cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz, who was caught while trying to leave the troubled zone disguised under a burqa.

Aziz's brother Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who is the deputy chief cleric of the mosque, is still inside Lal Masjid and making contacts to "resolve the issue without bloodshed."

But a ruling party leader, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, had told Ghazi that the government wanted the besieged extremists to surrender unconditionally.

Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Sherpao said that time for talks with Lal Masjid administration had passed and now Ghazi should surrender himself unconditionally, Pakistan's Online news agency reported.

Talking to a private TV channel he charged that the Lal Masjid administration was not sincere about talks. "Now the time for talks has passed and the only way out for Abdul Rashid Ghazi is to surrender unconditionally."

Sherpao said that Lal Masjid chief cleric "Maulana Abdul Aziz and his wife were the main characters of this saga and their arrest has sent a wave of disappointment among the students".

Following his arrest, Aziz denied that the Lal Masjid administrators had "any link with foreign militants" and added that his "decision to come out from Lal Masjid was taken in consultation with deputy chief cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi to avoid loss of lives of innocent people at large scale".

Still wearing a burqa during an interview with state-run TV channel PTV, Aziz said that "there was complete harmony with Ghazi on the point that one brother should remain present in the madrassa while the other was outside the mosque. The Sharia allows one to escape in hiding".

Claiming that there were only students inside the madrassa and no "foreign militants", Aziz added that "no suicide announcement was made from our side".

Asked about the forcible occupation of a library and abduction of police officials, Aziz told PTV that this due to a "reaction" but did not elaborate further.

Aziz said that the Jamia Hafsa women's madrassa and the Jamia Fareedia men's madrassa had about 10,000 students in all. "Their expenditures are dependent on donation." Aziz rejected reports that students were being kept in the mosque by force.

According to Aziz there were "only 10 to 15" Kalashnikov rifles in the madrassas "and some of them are with licences". He claimed that "no foreign elements are involved in supplying us arms. They have been provided by some local friends."

The local police have charged Aziz and Ghazi with murder and terrorism.

According to information minister Mohammad Ali Durrani all the women and minors who surrendered would be granted general amnesty, but the men would be charged with crimes they had allegedly committed during the clashes.

Security personnel frisked those leaving the barricaded compound and transported the men to a prison and the women to a public building in the neighbouring city of Rawalpindi.

Authorities were confirming 16 casualties, including two soldiers and one journalist in the three-day standoff. However, eyewitnesses and independent observers placed the death toll at 24, adding that more than 200 people were injured, many with bullet wounds.

The high drama outside Lal Masjid began Tuesday morning when some stick-wielding students attacked a police checkpoint near their seminary and seized four officials along with their weapons and two radios, triggering heavy shelling with tear-gas canisters by riot police.