War in the heart of Islamabad, Ghazi among 88 dead


Islamabad : Taking on Islamic radicalism in the very heart of Pakistan's capital, security forces Tuesday stormed the controversial Lal Masjid sparking daylong gun battles that killed 88 militants, eight soldiers and a key militant leader.

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Rebel cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi, deputy chief of the mosque, was killed by militants as he tried to surrender to Pakistani forces, Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Javed Cheema said.

"He was accompanied by four to five companions and he wanted to surrender when he was shot dead in a hail of bullets by other militants," Cheema said. Ghazi's body is in a basement and will be brought out after the compound is cleared, officials said.

Dozens of militants were also injured in the massive strike codenamed 'Operation Silence', sowing the seeds of more mullah anger against Pervez Musharraf.

Pakistani army said eight soldiers died and 29 others were injured in the intense fighting.

The militants had fired on hostages trying to flee the premises of Jamia Hafsa, a seminary for women adjacent to the mosque, and had also locked hostages in a basement to prevent their escape, Minister for Information and Broadcasting Muhammad Ali Durrani said.

The security forces also found a secret tunnel between Lal Masjid and the Jamia Hafsa.

The security forces claimed they had cleared most of the Lal Masjid compound.

Umm-e-Hasaan, the wife of Lal Masjid's chief cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz and principal of Jamia Hafsa, and his daughter Asma, were arrested in the operation.Aziz, the elder brother of Ghazi, was arrested on Wednesday while trying to flee disguised as a woman.

Musharraf gave the order to storm the complex after hours of negotiations between Ghazi and a delegation of religious scholars and cabinet ministers broke down early in the day.

He later said at a meeting with the country's security chiefs and officials that the use of force had become unavoidable. "We demonstrated maximum patience and restraint on the Lal Masjid issue. No option remained other than an operation. However, we proceeded in such a manner that the lives of children and women could be saved," he said.

Musharraf also cautioned religious parties not to stage protests over the mosque storming.

The talks are reported to have failed because Ghazi insisted on guarantees for suspected foreign fighters, although he and his followers were offered a safe exit in return for surrender.

However, before his death, Ghazi blamed the officials for the breakdown.

"I offered to 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)," he told Geo news channel.

Security forces have cordoned hospitals where the injured have been taken, giving rise to speculation that authorities were trying to hide the high number of victims.

However, 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 assault by the army and Pakistan Rangers men on the mosque, located close to the headquarters of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), was begun after the collapse of conciliatory talks ordered by the Supreme Court.

The entrenched militants, armed with rockets, assault rifles and machine guns, took on the Pakistani military that for decades had been its ally in the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and later during Taliban rule.

Many militants got on to the minarets of the mosque and opened fire at the advancing soldiers, who had to fight room by room as they tried to take control of the controversial mosque.

In Pakistan, all major cities were put on high alert to prevent street protests and possible terror attacks.

In the first sign that Islamic radicals could become a long-term headache for Musharraf, hundreds of armed supporters of the Lal Masjid militants blocked the Himalayan Karakorum Highway linking Pakistan to China in the North-West Frontier Province.

Several leaders of the local Taliban militia also joined the rally. But across the country, including in Islamabad where Lal Masjid students had been trying to impose an Islamic way of life, public sentiment in general has been in favour of the government.

The mosque confrontation began a week earlier when its students attacked a police checkpoint with firearms. Twenty- two people died during exchanges of fire and blasts at the complex that preceded Tuesday's assault.

On Sunday, Musharraf warned the militants to surrender or die. A storming operation appeared imminent after a commando colonel was shot dead while blowing holes in the mosque walls to allow hostages to escape.

The mosque fighting in Islamabad was being closely monitored in neighbouring India, which has been hit hard by decades of Islamist terror that the Lal Masjid has espoused in the name of religion.