Fresh gunfire during Pakistan mosque siege

Fresh gunfire erupted at a besieged mosque in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, on Wednesday as about 1 000 militant students showed their defiance after 700 others surrendered to the government.

Helicopter gunships circled overhead and armoured personnel carriers surrounded Lal Masjid, or the Red Mosque, amid a shoot-on-sight curfew imposed after clashes at the mosque left 16 people dead on Tuesday.

Students exchanged automatic weapons fire with security forces at the mosque in downtown Islamabad after police fired tear-gas shells at the compound to drive out more radicals holed up inside, officials said.

President Pervez Musharraf, already facing a crisis ahead of elections later this year, ordered the crackdown after the mosque brazenly tried to set up a Taliban-style justice system in the heart of the capital.

Information Minister Mohammad Ali Durrani told a press conference the government was working to ”ensure minimum loss of human lives during any operation against Lal Masjid”.

Streaming out

Hundreds of women in black burqas and bearded young men streamed out of the compound and passed through metal detectors after the government set and then twice extended a deadline for them to give themselves up.

”Around 700 have come out; more are coming. They were provided with transport facilities to go to their homes,” senior Islamabad administration official Chaudhry Mohammad Ali said.

Musharraf earlier said each of them would receive 5 000 rupees ($83), while other officials said they would be offered an amnesty as long as they were not involved in Tuesday’s violence.

Students leaving the mosque said two bodies were inside along with several injured people. Mosque sources said one of them was a militant from the banned extremist group Jaish-e-Mohammed.

Many leaving the mosque said they had no idea of the whereabouts of the two brothers who run the compound. Others pledged to continue the mosque’s struggle for the enforcement of Islamic law, like the one installed by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which lasted from 1996 until the United States-led invasion in 2001.

”It is not necessary to carry out jihad [holy war] right now. We can fight another day,” said Mohammad Ibrahim.

Troops earlier killed a male student and an apparently mentally ill man in the early hours of the day as part of the shoot-on-sight curfew.

Hardcore

Security officials said an estimated 1 000 students were still in the building, about half of them female students, and added that it was possible the siege could go into a second night.

”We expect most of the women and about 300 more men will come out, then only the hardcore will be left inside. Our estimate is the militant element is only a couple of hundred,” a senior security official said.

Those holding out are believed to include Taliban insurgents from the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan and sectarian jihadis belonging to banned Pakistani sectarian groups.

Tensions remained high in the curfew area. Hundreds of troops also built sandbag bunkers and rolled out barbed wire to block off all roads. Electricity to the area immediately around the complex was cut during the night.

Deputy mosque leader Abdul Rashid Ghazi earlier offered a conditional surrender, but said he still insisted on the imposition of Islamic law. He was not immediately available for comment on the surrenders. He added the mosque had enough supplies to carry on ”until God wants”.

The mosque has led a freelance anti-vice campaign in the capital, including the abduction of several people accused of running brothels — including the seven Chinese — and raids on local music and DVD shops.

During the night, Ghazi held talks over the telephone with a hard-line opposition leader, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, in a bid to end the stand-off, but had not spoken to the government.

Shootings

Tuesday’s shootings left a soldier, a journalist, at least eight students and some bystanders dead. More than 140 people were wounded, many of them female students suffering from tear-gas inhalation.

Military ruler Musharraf, embroiled in crisis over his suspension of Pakistan’s top judge, has faced mounting criticism over his failure to crack down on the mosque.

Six Pakistani soldiers and five civilians were killed in a suicide car bombing early on Wednesday in a troubled tribal frontier region in what officials said was a possible revenge attack.

The Red Mosque students took over a government-run children’s library in January. In April, it set up an Islamic court that imposed a ”fatwa” on the then tourism minister after she was pictured hugging a foreign parachuting instructor. — Sapa-AFP

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