Islamabad : Security forces Sunday night gave the final ultimatum to the militants holed up inside the besieged Lal Masjid, even as an influential cleric warned the Pakistan government of suicide attacks if the operation against the mosque was not called off.
"This is the last warning for you to surrender yourself to the authorities," the troops announced on a megaphone, a witness told DPA from the scene in the heart of the capital.
The ultimatum, which also raised the possibility of a full-fledged attack on the mosque, was preceded by a warning from a pro-Taliban cleric with a large following, who told the Pakistani government that suicide attacks would be triggered across the country if the military operation against the mosque was not ended.
"The Lal Masjid issue, if not resolved right now, will set off an unstoppable series of suicide attacks and bombings across the country," a DPA report quoted Maulana Sami ul Haq as telling a convention in Lahore.
Troops have surrounded the mosque since Tuesday when clashes erupted between them and armed religious students, many of them trained by the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
President Pervez Musharraf had Saturday asked the militants to "surrender or face death".
"They should not prolong, they should surrender and hand over their weapons, otherwise they risk being killed," he said.
On Saturday night, the security forces launched yet another operation, which left a Pakistani army officer dead. Colonel Haroon Islam died in a hospital in Rawalpindi, some 30 km from here, after being shot at by militants, an army spokesperson said Sunday.
The spokesperson added that two security men were also injured Saturday when two unidentified men fired at them outside the Lal Masjid, Xinhua reported.
Earlier, Information Minister Tariq Azeem said the death toll in the clashes between radical students and security forces had risen to 24.
It is difficult to verify the casualties inside the mosque, Azeem said, adding that the government's policy remained unchanged and use of force was the last option.
On the other hand, the besieged clerics told the media that the overnight army bombings had killed at least 335 students.
At least 310 female and 25 male students were killed in the bombings of the compound of the mosque in the overnight operation, said Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the deputy chief cleric of the controversial mosque.
Ghazi, who is leading the resistance in the mosque, said he had stocks of weapons enough to keep fighting the security forces for one month.
Pakistan, however, denied Gazi's casualty claim saying the security forces were trying best to minimize human losses in the operation and never used heavy weapons against militants in the Lal Masjid.
Interior ministry spokesman Brigadier Javed Iqbal Cheema stressed that the bombings carried out by security forces were aimed only at breaching sections of the walls on the mosque compound to let hundreds of women and children taken hostages escape.
There are still more than 1,000 men and women students inside the mosque in the heart of the city, Umm-e-Hassan, the principal of Jamia Hafsa – the seminary for girls – and wife of Lal Masjid chief Maulana Abdul Aziz, was quoted as saying.
Meanwhile, DPA reported that Abdul Rashid Ghazi had agreed to face the charges against him in court provided the government delayed military action for three weeks.
"The security operation should be delayed for three weeks, and if there are any charges against me they should be decided in the court during this period," he was quoted by the Geo news channel Saturday as telling the president of ruling Pakistan Muslim League party Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain over the phone.