ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (July 7) — The death toll in the government’s three-day siege of a radical mosque in the center of Islamabad has risen to 19, the interior minister said last Thursday. Reports also emerged last Thursday evening that the holdout cleric leading the rebellion was offering to surrender.
(New York Times News Service) ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (July 7) — The death toll in the government’s three-day siege of a radical mosque in the center of Islamabad has risen to 19, the interior minister said last Thursday. Reports also emerged last Thursday evening that the holdout cleric leading the rebellion was offering to surrender.
The government kept up its pressure on the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, demanding the unconditional surrender of the estimated 400 to 500 people still inside, as many as half of them female students and teachers. Army and police commandos have surrounded the complex and barred access since heavy clashes with armed followers on Tuesday.
Several times during the day and evening helicopters circled overhead, and the security forces exchanged fire with the militants inside the mosque in half-hour bursts of heavy gunfire and explosions. Then, each time the guns fell silent, the troops used loudspeakers to call on those inside to surrender, assuring them safe passage. The security forces have demolished part of the compound wall in a series of explosions, the officials said.
Yet government officials conceded that despite some success on Wednesday — when more than 1,100 students surrendered and one leader of the uprising was arrested while trying to escape dressed in a burqa — security forces were now locked in a standoff with the militants, who are intent on imposing Islamic law throughout the country.
More students emerged from the mosque on Thursday, but the interior minister, Ahmed Aftab Khan Sherpao, said there were still up to 60 armed militants inside who were preventing others from leaving.
"There are 50 to 60 hard-core militants with automatic weapons, grenades and petrol bombs, which they have used," he said at a news briefing here in the capital. "They are the ones who have stopped the women and children from coming out. The majority want to leave."
About 40 people, including some women, escaped from the mosque in the afternoon and were fleeing against the wishes of those in charge inside the compound, Javed Iqbal Cheema, an Interior Ministry spokesman, said late Thursday.
He called on Abdur Rashid Ghazi, the younger of two brothers leading the mosque and its religious schools, to allow all children and students to leave safely.
In telephone interviews with Pakistani television news channels, Ghazi said he was offering to surrender on the condition he not be prosecuted and be allowed to stay in the compound with his sick mother for a few days.
"We are not criminals," he told Aaj TV. "They are treating us like criminals. Even with criminals, negotiations take place. It is quite clear that they want killing."