Warning blasts set off at besieged Lal Masjid


Islamabad : Security forces launched a brief pre-dawn assault on the besieged Lal Masjid in Pakistan's capital Thursday to pressure the bunkered militant students to lay down their arms and surrender, officials said.

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"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 said while seeking anonymity.

A gate of the Lal Masjid compound was also blown off in the half-hour assault.

The deputy administrator of the mosque, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, however, remained defiant and rejected calls for an unconditional surrender.

"We have removed the cause the government said made it launch its operation. We are ready to resolve the issue without bloodshed," Ghazi told the private Aaj TV news channel.

Authorities have confirmed 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.

Ghazi is now commanding the militants entrenched in the mosque after his brother and chief administrator of the Lal Masjid, Maulana Abdul Aziz, was caught by security forces Wednesday night when he tried to escape wearing a burqa.

The local police had charged the two brothers with murder and terrorism.

More than 1,200 people including girl students left the besieged mosque and its adjoining Jamia Hafsa madrassa in groups as the authorities repeatedly extended the deadline set on Wednesday for launching a full-force assault.

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.

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

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