Religious scholars gathered outside a besieged Pakistani mosque on Monday, asking Islamist militants to send out dead and wounded along with women and children, a day after authorities gave “a final warning” to surrender.
Security forces had earlier fired tear gas and traded fire with gunmen inside the compound housing the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) and a girl’s madrasa in the heart of Islamabad, but there was no sign of an imminent assault.
Instead, a delegation of Muslim scholars along with ex-premier Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain assembled outside with loudspeakers to plead for reason.
“We have come here to make a last request,” Hussain, leader of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League, told reporters as he approached the barbed-wire cordon on day seven of the siege. “We are here to request them to hand over bodies to us and send injured for treatment. We will try to take forward the negotiation process.”
With at least 21 people killed so far in the violence that began last Tuesday, government forces have tried to give women and children inside the compound time to flee.
Holes have been blown in outer walls of the compound housing the mosque and the Jamia Hafsa religious school, where the government says 200 to 500 followers of a rebel cleric’s Taliban-style movement have battened down for a siege.
The government says children have been either coerced or persuaded to stay behind to act as human shields for fighters, some belonging to militant groups linked to al-Qaeda.
A hostage-negotiation team would also seek a breakthrough, Interior Minister Ahmed Aftab Khan Sherpao told state-run television.
Troops surrounded Lal Masjid on Tuesday last week after clashes between armed student radicals and paramilitary troops erupted after months of tension.
A woman who feared her daughter had been killed and buried inside the compound begged to go inside as she waited with about a dozen other anxious parents behind barbed-wire barriers.
“I request the law-enforcement agencies to let me go inside. I can go alone, and I know nobody will fire from inside. I know these people very well,” Asia Bibi said.
Authorities blared out over loudspeakers what they said was a final warning on Sunday evening, and a drone flew over the compound overnight, fuelling speculation an assault was imminent.
Lal Masjid cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi and his fighters have scorned warnings to surrender or die. Ghazi said he and his followers hope their deaths will spark an Islamic revolution.
Government and military officials say there are 50 to 60 hardcore militants leading the fighting, but most of the others are women and children.
About 1Â 200 students left the mosque soon after the clashes began, but the number leaving has since slowed to a trickle. Officials say the militants have distributed suicide-bomb vests and even shot students trying to flee the mosque.
Feeding fears of a militant backlash, three Chinese workers were shot dead and one wounded in an attack in the north-western city of Peshawar on Sunday. Authorities said it appeared to be a response to the bloody siege in the capital.
Lal Masjid has been a hotbed of militancy for years, known for its support for Afghanistan’s Taliban and opposition to Musharraf’s backing for the United States-led campaign against terrorism.
At least 20 people, mostly soldiers and police, have been killed since Wednesday in four blasts in the country, including two suicide attacks and an ambush, although it was unclear if the attacks were related directly to the Lal Masjid siege.
The Lal Masjid movement is a reflection of the militancy seeping into cities from tribal areas on the Afghan border.
In the restive tribal region of Bajaur, a wanted Pakistani Taliban leader, flanked by masked gunmen, vowed revenge for the attacks on Lal Masjid. A crowd of more than 10Â 000 tribesmen chanted “al-Jihad” and “Death to America”. — Reuters
Additional reporting by Augustine Anthony and Kamran Haider