At least 58 killed as Pakistani forces clear rebel mosque


Islamabad : Pakistan's security forces Tuesday claimed to have rescued some 80 hostages being held by Islamic militants in the final assault at the Islamabad besieged mosque as death toll in the fight rose to 58, including eight soldiers.

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"Our eight soldiers have embraced martyrdom while 29 more are wounded," Pakistan military's spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad told reporters here. Around 50 militants had been killed so far while dozens were injured, he added.

The military was still trying to flush out the militants entrenched in the basements of the huge compound of the Jamia Hafsa religious seminary situated adjacent to the Lal Masjid mosque.

Militants are using women and children as human shields, Arshad claimed, adding that hardline cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi was also inside one of the basement quarters.

He claimed that the authorities had rescued 80 students, 50 male and 30 female. Among them were Umme Hassan, the wife of Red Mosque's chief cleric and Ghazi's elder brother, Maulana Abdul Aziz, who was arrested Wednesday in bid to flee disguised as a woman.

Media reports, however, said that when the rescued hostages came out of the mosque, they were chanting slogans "God is great!" — a typical slogan of the militants.

Soldiers launched the storming operation after hours-long negotiations between Ghazi and a delegation of religious scholars and cabinet ministers broke down early Tuesday morning.

"There were positive signs in the negotiations and we were very hopeful that we would reach a conclusion, but unfortunately he (Ghazi) detracted from his earlier stance and the dialogue reached a deadlock, and there was a total breakdown," Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Cheema said.

The government officials claimed that the talks failed because Ghazi insisted on guarantees for suspected foreign fighters, although he and his followers were offered a safe exit in return for surrender.

"For god's sake give us some room so that we could put forward your demands, release at least 15 to 20 hostages," Minister for Religious Affairs Ijaz-ul-Haq cited the chief negotiator and the president of ruling Pakistan Muslim League Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain as telling Ghazi.

But Ghazi blamed the officials for the breakdown in talks.

"I offered surrender in the presence of media so that the entire world could see what sort of weapons we had, and that was my last words to them (negotiators)," Ghazi told Geo news channel.

The holed-up militants were using weapons including machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, military spokesmen said, adding that some of the quarters in the huge compound were also booby-trapped.

"This is perhaps my last chance to say anything, and I would like to say that we fought with courage. We were asked to bow before the power, but we refused to do so," Ghazi told Aaj TV news channel during the fight.

"We will fight until martyrdom, but the people will take revenge from the rulers," he said defiantly.

President Pervez Musharraf had approved talks with the extremists Monday, amid fears that a high number of casualties in a possible storming operation could cause the loss of public support he had won through his firm stance against extremism.

The security forces have reportedly cordoned a hospital, giving rise to speculation that the move was aimed at trying to hide the high number of casualties.

Information Minister Mohammed Ali Durrani said the government was not trying to hide anything. "As soon as the operation is wound up, we will provide all information to the media," he said.

The military deployment at the Red Mosque began exactly a week ago as the zealot students of Islamic seminary attacked a police post, escalating the five-month standoff with the authorities over their efforts to strictly enforce Islamic laws in the country.