Pakistan raid kills militants, leader

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Scores of militants died with their grizzled and defiant leader yesterday as elite special forces overran a mosque in central Islamabad that had become a haven for Islamic extremists.

At least eight soldiers and an unknown number of women and children also died in the battle, which, at its height, raged for more than 18 hours.

Early today, sporadic gunfire and explosions could be heard from the mosque as the Pakistani military operation to seize the complex, which has left more than 60 people dead, entered a second day.

The army said it had taken control of 80 percent of the compound and was battling die-hard Islamist fighters holed up in basement rooms who were using women and children as human shields.

Throughout the capital, citizens expressed shock at so much blood being shed in a holy shrine in the heart of a tree-lined, middle-class neighborhood. Senior military officers expressed dismay at the carnage and surprise at the level of resistance put up by the militants.

The raid, which began before dawn, ended a weeklong siege of Islamabad’s revered Red Mosque and came after several hours of negotiations failed to win the surrender of the mosque’s leader, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who said before his death that he welcomed “martyrdom.”

Elite army fighters crashed through the mosque’s gates in armored personnel carriers and scaled its concrete walls. The militants, entrenched in the mosque and an adjacent women’s religious school, responded with heavy arms including mortars and rockets.

At nightfall, the rival forces continued to battle from room to room as the death toll rose.

Authorities offered no estimate of casualties among an unknown number of women and children who had been held in the mosque as human shields.

But the Associated Press quoted a city administrator saying as many as 50 women had been freed by the militants after the escape of 26 children. A local reporter told the AP he saw dozens of women and girls walking away from the mosque wearing burqas.

“We are taking a step-by-step approach so there is no collateral damage,” said an army spokesman who explained that stun grenades were being used to reduce the casualties among the hostages.

Several hundred reporters, watching from a distance of about a quarter-mile, noted a lessening in the pace of fighting by 9 p.m. Army officials said they would provide a detailed casualty count after a final sweep of the premises.

An Interior Ministry spokesman told Pakistan Television last night that the body of Ghazi had been found a short time earlier in the basement of the women’s school, where he had been hiding with militants and some unarmed civilians.

Some military officials insisted Ghazi had been killed by his own followers when he tried to surrender.

Two days earlier, Ghazi had told reporters he was prepared for “martyrdom” and that he hoped his death would spark a revolution against the government of President Pervez Musharraf.

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