Dozen blasts heard at Lal Masjid


Islamabad : Around a dozen heavy blasts were heard Saturday at the besieged Lal Masjid where hardcore Islamic clerics and students have been holed up as a delegation tried to deliver medicine, food and a renewed plea for surrender.

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"We have heard 11 back-to-back powerful blasts with one minute gap, followed by heavy firing," an eyewitness told DPA from the scene.

However, the nature and targets of the explosions, which were carried out after a fierce exchange of fire overnight, were unclear.

The blasts occurred as a five-member delegation of parliamentarians and leaders of religious political parties was inching towards the Lal Masjid for a meeting with hard-line cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi.

"We are going there with supplies of medicine and food and to persuade Ghazi to surrender unconditionally so that more bloodshed could be avoided," a local leader of religious alliance Muttahida Majlis-e-Ammal (MMA) Syyed Bilal told Aaj news channel.

He said the delegation would also discuss security arrangements for moving the bodies and the injured to hospitals.

Mosque officials had refused to hand over the bodies to the ambulance service saying they would disappear or be buried in some mass grave, sources in the mosque told DPA. After the blasts, the delegation including two female MMA parliamentarians, left the area without meeting Ghazi.

"The government says the militants had hurled hand grenades and opened fire on security forces, while Ghazi told us that not a single shot was fired from their side," said Bilal who was arrested later by police.

He said one objective of the planned meeting was to move the bodies. Mosque officials say there are more than 80 bodies inside the mosque.

Security forces have killed 70 students in attacks on the mosque on Saturday, Ghazi told Geo news channel on the telephone.

Earlier, Pakistani police arrested dozens of Islamic students in a pre-dawn raid on a seminary affiliated with the besieged mosque.

"Some 50 students of Jamia Faridia have been taken into custody in an advanced movement in the wake of Lal Majid stand off," Zafar Iqbal, senior police superintendent said.

Jamia Faridia, a male seminary located in Islamabad's posh E-7 neighbourhood, was recently abandoned by more than 2,500 students after security forces laid siege to the fortified compound of Lal Masjid early Wednesday.

Authorities feared a backlash from Islamic students of several madrassas or religious schools overseen by the two radical cleric brothers.

Tension at the mosque began Tuesday when militant students attacked a police check post, prompting fierce gunbattles.

The students have been at loggerheads with the authorities for the past five months over their efforts to impose strict Islamic Sharia law by kidnapping several women for their alleged involvement in prostitution and warning music store owners to stop selling "un-Islamic" goods.

Ghazi and his followers remained, telling Geo news channel: "We can never turn ourselves in. We will accept martyrdom but will not surrender," after authorities dismissed his offer.

Around 450 students made their wills after offering Friday prayers, sources inside the mosque told the news channel.

"Our entire struggle and sacrifices were for the enforcement of Islamic law in the country," a student, Salman, said in his will. "We hope that the people of Pakistan will carry forward our efforts for Islamic justice system".

Meanwhile, the government was investigating the failed assassination attempt on President General Pervez Musharraf Friday. Several anti-aircraft rounds missed his plane on Friday.

Immediately after the incident, some militants inside the mosque told Geo news channel that their supporters had carried out the attack, but the claim could not be verified.

However, some sympathizers of the Red mosque continued their attacks on security forces in Swat district of North West Frontier Province.

An explosion targeted a military convoy near Chakdara in the district, killing four troops including two officers.

Four policemen were also injured in the same district when the militants ambushed their vehicle.

Security forces were deployed in the area after local cleric Fazalullah, of the banned extremist Islamic organization Nifaz Shariat -I-Mohammed, had threatened to carry out attacks on Pakistani security forces if the siege of the Red Mosque was not ended.

The warning preceded three attacks on police officials in Swat district over the last three days, which have left six people, including two policemen, dead.