Rebel Pakistani cleric urges Islamic revolution
ISLAMABAD, July 8 (Reuters) A rebel cleric said he and his fighters hoped their deaths would spark an Islamic revolution in Pakistan, as commandos blew holes in the walls of their besieged mosque compound to help women and children escape.
Troops have surrounded the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, in Islamabad since Tuesday when clashes between armed student radicals and government forces erupted after months of tension.
The death toll from the conflict rose to at least 21 when an officer was killed early today as he led commandos in a raid to blow up the walls of a girls' religious school, or madrasa, in the compound.
Government and military officials say rebel cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi has 50 to 60 hard-core militants -- some from groups linked to al Qaeda -- leading the fighting, and hundreds of women and children hostages.
Ghazi denies anyone is being used as a human shield. Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Sherpao said militants shot and wounded three students trying to get away today. Occasional gunfire rang out during the day.
President Pervez Musharraf yesterday gave the militants a ''surrender-or-die'' ultimatum.
Ghazi has said he prefers ''martyrdom''. In a statement carried by today's newspapers the cleric said he and his followers hoped their deaths would spark a revolution.
''We have firm belief in God that our blood will lead to a revolution,'' wrote Ghazi. ''God willing, Islamic revolution will be the destiny of this nation.'' His Taliban-style movement reflects the militancy seeping into cities from tribal areas on the Afghan border.
Religious Affairs Minister Mohammad Ejaz-ul-Haq told a news conference Lal Masjid's defenders included ''terrorists, militants, who are wanted within, and outside, the country''.
Ghazi has said he has nearly 2,000 followers with him. The minister put the number at 200 to 500.
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 US-led campaign against terrorism.
NO FULL-SCALE ASSAULT Security forces say they have refrained from mounting a full-scale assault because of fears for the women and children inside.
Troops have been blasting holes in the walls since Wednesday and conducted another breaching operation early today.
About 1,200 students left the mosque after the clashes began but the number leaving has slowed to a trickle. Interior Minister Sherpao said five children got away today.
While some women and children may have been forced to stay, women are among the most fervent supporters of Ghazi and his elder brother Abdul Aziz, caught on Wednesday trying to escape.
Ghazi told reporters more than 300 followers, most of them female, were killed overnight. The government said that was a lie.
An ambulance drove up to the compound and called repeatedly through a loudspeaker for any dead and wounded to be brought out but none came, an ambulance official said.
Water, gas and power has been cut and food is said to be running short.
Many Pakistanis support the action against the hardliners whose behaviour, including a vigilante campaign against perceived vice, has raised concern about the spread of militant Islam.
Islamist politicians have called for an end to the siege and for Ghazi to release the women and children.