Islamabad : At least two soldiers and scores of people were killed as Pakistani special forces stormed the Lal Masjid in Islamabad early Tuesday after failed negotiations overnight between authorities and the holed-up militants, officials said.
"Security forces have entered the mosque using three or four points, but they are facing stiff resistance from the militants who have resorted to intense firing," the Pakistan military's chief spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad said.
A total of eight commandoes were brought to a city hospital during the assault – two succumbed to their injuries while three others remained in critical condition, an official with the Medical Institute of Sciences hospital said.
However, Arshad said only five troops had been injured. He estimated the operation would take two to three more hours as commandos were working to neutralize the target with a minimum number of casualties.
"The militants are using small arms as well as petrol bombs. Some hand grenades were also hurled on security forces," Arshad said.
The numbers of casualties inside the mosque was not yet known, but more than a dozen ambulances were seen heading towards the scene. Hundreds of women and children were being held hostage by the radical militants in the mosque.
Television footage showed smoke billowing from the mosque compound in central Islamabad, while several dozens of heavy blasts were heard at the scene, carried out presumably by security forces to demolish sections of the boundary wall of the heavy fortified compound.
The leader of the militants, hard-line cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi, remained defiant after two hours of heavy fighting.
"This is my last chance to say anything, and I would like to say that we fought with courage. We were asked to bow, but we refused to do so," Ghazi told Aaj news channel. "We will die but the people will take revenge from the rulers."
He said that around 25 warriors, armed with 14 AK-47 rifles, were resisting the special forces, which were being backed by around 12,000 military and paramilitary troops.
Ghazi said some bullets had hit his mother, who was taking her last breaths.
The storm operation came as negotiations to resolve the standoff Monday and a reported last-ditch effort Tuesday morning had failed.
Security forces have been engaged in a weeklong gun-battle with the entrenched extremist Islamic students.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf had approved talks with the extremists Monday, amid fears that a high number of casualties in a possible storm operation could cause the loss of public support he has won through his firm stance against extremism.