Militants refuse to abandon Lal Masjid


Islamabad : Recurrent gunfire with a few deafening explosions hit the besieged mosque complex in the heartland of Islamabad Friday morning after defiant militant elements swept aside demands for unconditional surrender.

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"Dummy mortars" and machinegun fire to pressure the holed-up hardcore Islamists into calling off their armed resistance hit the Lal Masjid compound.

Shaken but undeterred, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the deputy administrator of the Lal Masjid, late Thursday sought a "safe passage" to leave the troubled zone but authorities rejected anything short of complete surrender.

"The call for safe passage is neither appropriate nor does it hold any justification," Interior Minster Aftab Sherpao told the state-run Pakistan Television channel Friday.

Unconfirmed reports from inside the mosque suggested that there were some 300 rebellious men holding hundreds of women and children in the heavily fortified compound that houses the Lal Masjid and the Jamia Hafsa seminary for girls.

Security forces surrounding the compound have so far restrained from launching a full-scale assault as President Pervez Musharraf has directed them to keep collateral damage to the minimum.

So far 19 deaths have been confirmed officially in the fourth-day of fighting that started Tuesday afternoon, but witnesses and independent observers say the number of casualties is running into several dozens.

The mosque administration claimed that at least 30 young female students were killed in Friday's pre-dawn mortar attack on the seminary.

Officials said the besieged militants, who included rebels from banned religious outfits, were using women and children as human shields, but Ghazi denied the allegations.

"There are no militants belonging to Jihadi organizations inside the mosque," he told the private Aaj News television channel.

Amid repeated calls for surrender, 1,146 people, including 401 women came out of the Lal Masjid complex, while some 45 men were captured by the Pakistan Rangers paramilitary forces as they attempted to escape after scaling the mosque's walls.

Ghazi's brother and Lal Masjid chief cleric, Maulana Abdul Aziz, was also arrested Wednesday night by security forces when he tried to flee disguised as a veiled woman with his wife and her students from the Jamia Hafsa seminary.

In a bizarre appearance on PTV the next morning, he asked his pupils to surrender because they cannot resist the force.

"In the situation (the military deployment) that I saw outside, the students taking stand will result in losses and nothing else. If they can leave quietly they should otherwise surrender," Aziz said.

Meanwhile, a special court in Islamabad's neighbouring city of Rawalpindi Thursday remanded Aziz into police custody for seven days after he was charged with plotting terrorist attacks.

The leaders of the Red Mosque vow to implement strict Islamic Sharia law "in every inch of Pakistan." Students affiliated with the mosque's madrassa had threatened music store owners to stop selling their "un-Islamic" goods, ordered women not to drive and abducted alleged prostitutes in recent months.