The top-ranking cleric of a radical mosque besieged by government forces in Pakistan’s capital rejected calls for an unconditional surrender Friday, saying he and his die-hard followers were ready for martyrdom.
At dusk on the third day of the siege, a half-dozen explosions rocked the area around the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, shooting debris high above the treetops along with plumes of smoke and dust. Explosions and gunfire also were heard earlier in the day, but troops appeared to be holding back from a potentially bloody assault.
There were no immediate reports of injuries and it was not possible to determine who initiated the latest round of shooting.
“We will not surrender. We will be martyred, but we will not surrender,” cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi told GEO television, a private channel. “We are more determined now.”
The government was keen to avoid a bloodbath that would further damage President Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s embattled administration and said troops would not storm the mosque while women and children were inside.
“For the Pakistan army to go in is no problem, but safely is our foremost objective,” government spokesman Tariq Azim said. “We don’t want to harm any innocent lives. We already know that these people are being kept as hostages.”
Azim told Dawn News Television that Ghazi’s talk about martyrdom was a bluff, noting that his brother, chief cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz, had said the same thing and then was arrested trying to sneak out of the complex disguised as a woman in a full-length burqa and high heels.
The violence brought to a head a six-month standoff between Aziz and Pakistan’s U.S.-backed government. Aziz has challenged Musharraf with an anti-vice campaign that has included kidnapping alleged prostitutes and police officers.
Troops surrounded the mosque on Wednesday, a day after tensions between government security forces and mosque followers who have sought to impose Taliban-style rule in the city erupted into deadly street clashes. The violence has killed 19 people.
Militant students had streamed out of the mosque Tuesday to confront security forces sent there after the kidnapping of six alleged Chinese prostitutes. The brief abduction drew a protest from Beijing, and proved to be the last straw following a string of provocations by the mosque stretching back six months.
Two dozen parents and other family members waited anxiously behind security barriers some 200 yards from the mosque, with about 10 allowed to approach the shrine’s entrance.
During lulls in the fighting, some parents have approached the mosque, handed notes to those inside with the names of their children, who have then emerged. Officials say more than 1,200 have fled the complex, most of them male and female seminarians.
An Interior Ministry official, Syed Kalam Shah, said the militants had opened fire on a group of people trying to take their children out of the compound, wounding one of them.
'Give a chance'
Six young men who had emerged from the mosque, two of them barefoot, were rounded up by troops. It was not known if they were suspected of being among the hard-core militants in the mosque. Eight were similarly seized Thursday.
Armed troops and barbed wire coils on the streets near the mosque prevented journalists from going near the scene.
Azim told Dawn News that soldiers had blasted holes in walls of the fortress-like compound of the mosque “so that if they bolted the door, to at least give a chance to people to be able to escape through those holes.”
In an interview with GEO TV, Ghazi denied that he was holding students as hostages and rejected suggestions that hard-core militants had taken over the defense of the mosque.
Religious Affairs Minister Ijazul Haq said in a televised interview Friday that “militants” were in command and that Ghazi was just being used for “media management.”
He said indirect negotiations were proceeding, with clerics trying to persuade Ghazi to give up.
'A serious development'
Ghazi told GEO television Thursday night that he and his followers were willing to lay down their arms and end the standoff, but on condition they were not arrested. Officials rejected the offer, demanding “total, unconditional surrender.”
Officials have said the holdouts were armed with automatic weapons, hand grenades, explosives and homemade gasoline bombs, and Azim said some of those fleeing reported the compound was mined.
“We do not know exactly how correct this information is, but if that’s correct, then it’s a serious development,” Azim said.