Pakistani commando killed blasting mosque school wall
ISLAMABAD, July 8 (Reuters) Pakistani commandos raided the compound of a mosque today where militants are holding out, blasting holes in a perimeter wall in the hope hundreds of women and children can escape, the military said.
The militants in the compound of the mosque and a girls' religious school, or madrasa, responded with heavy fire and the commander of the unit that mounted the attack was killed, said military spokesman Major-General Waheed Arshad.
Hundreds of troops have surrounded the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, in Islamabad since Tuesday when clashes between armed students and security forces began after months of tension.
The known death toll in the standoff was least 21.
Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the cleric leader of the Taliban-style movement, told Pakistani television channels today morning that in overnight gunbattles more than 300 of his followers were killed, mostly female students, but Information Minister Mohammad Ali Durrani described the claim as a lie.
By mid-morning, a lull in firing had lasted several hours.
President Pervez Musharraf said yesterday the militants had no choice but to surrender. If not, they would be killed.
Security forces have not mounted a full-scale assault on the compound because of fears for the safety of hundreds of women and children the government says are being held as human shields.
Instead, troops have been blasting holes in the wall to provide escape routes for those inside.
Gunfire erupted shortly after 0130 hrs (IST) and about 20 minutes later three big blasts sounded across the capital as the commandos blew up the wall of the madrasa.
''We've already made four or five holes and tonight also two or three holes were made,'' Waheed said.
''While these operations were being carred there was intense firing from the militants,'' he said. A lieutenant colonel leading the mission was killed and another commando was wounded.
Ghazi has refused to surrender, saying he would prefer ''martyrdom''. He also rejected the accusations he was holding women and children as human shields.
''THEY WILL BE KILLED'' The Lal Masjid has been a hotbed of militancy for years, known for its support for the Taliban in Afghanistan and opposition to Musharraf's backing for the US-led campaign against terrorism.
Fifty to 60 hard-core militants were believed to be leading the fighting, officials said.
Musharraf, in his first public comment on the confrontation, said the militants had no option but to surrender.
''If they don't surrender, I'm saying it here, they will be killed,'' Musharraf told reporters.
''We've shown great patience because we don't want people to be killed.'' Water, gas and power to the mosque were cut and food was said to be running short. Security forces have occupied another city madrasa linked to the Lal Masjid.
Ghazi said he and his followers would lay down their weapons but never accept arrest.
''If compromise means bowing down it's unacceptable to my boys, my girls and me,'' he told ARY Television.
About 1,200 students left the mosque after the clashes began but only about 20 have come out since Friday. Waheed said some had slipped out of the breaches troops were making.
Officials said they did not know how many people remained inside but there could be up to 2,000.
Many Pakistanis support the action against the hardliners whose behaviour, including a vigilante campaign against perceived vice, raised concern about the spread of militant Islam.
Islamist politicians have called for an end to the siege and for Ghazi to send out the women and children.