Military operation continues at Lal Masjid


Islamabad : Sporadic explosions and gunfire continued at Islamabad's Lal Masjid and religious seminary Wednesday as Pakistani troops battled last pockets of resistance by militants inside.

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Over 25 hours after the start of the storming operation at the mosque complex, military spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad said some defenders were still entrenched in the rambling basement area, local media reported.

Troops were moving slowly to avoid casualties among women and children still thought to be held hostage in the premises, Arshad said.

Amid speculation that full casualty figures were being withheld, the official said more than 50 militants and nine members of the security forces died in fighting since the assault began around 4 a.m. Tuesday.

The body of the deputy chief cleric at the mosque, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, was reportedly moved from the complex in the centre of the capital and taken for post-mortem and DNA testing.

Ghazi died in crossfire in one of the bunkers built by defenders of the Jamia Hafsa seminary. His brother Maulana Abdul Aziz was arrested earlier trying to flee the Lal Masjid mosque last week.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf ordered the storming operation after talks for the surrender of the militant clerics and their heavily armed supporters failed early Tuesday.

Students at the complex had for months run a morality campaign in the city, detaining alleged prostitutes, harassing audio and video entertainment stores and kidnapping policemen.

The clerics also demanded enforcement of strict Islamic Shariah law in the country.