- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 5, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A radical cleric arrested while fleeing his government-besieged mosque in a burqa and high heels said today that the nearly 1,000 followers still inside should flee or surrender.

The comments by Maulana Abdul Aziz raised hopes that the standoff could end without more bloodshed, but his brother remained inside the mosque with followers and said there was no reason to surrender.

Gunfire repeatedly erupted around the Red Mosque, or Lal Masjid Aziz, but no large-scale fighting was reported. Reuters news agency reported that security forces blew holes in the outer walls of the mosque and that smoke was rising from the surrounding compound.

At least 16 people, including eight militants, have been killed, and scores have been injured in the standoff between Pakistan’s U.S.-backed government and Mr. Aziz, who has challenged President Pervez Musharraf with a drive to impose Taliban-style Islamic law in the city.

The bloodshed in the heart of the capital has added to a sense of crisis in Pakistan, where Gen. Musharraf faces emboldened militants near the Afghan border and a pro-democracy movement triggered by his botched attempt to fire the country’s chief justice.

Mr. Aziz’s brother, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, remains inside the mosque, and an Interior Ministry official estimated that the cleric had about 30 die-hard supporters with him. Intelligence officials said there could be as many as 100.

The official, Javed Iqbal Cheema, said Mr. Ghazi was using women and children as “human shields,” something Mr. Ghazi denied in a telephone interview.

“Why should we surrender? We are not criminals. How can we force those out who don’t want to leave?” Mr. Ghazi, the mosque’s deputy leader, asked rhetorically.

Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim said some of the more than 1,100 supporters who had fled the mosque and an adjoining girls’ madrassa told them that Mr. Ghazi had retreated to a cellar along with 20 female “hostages” and that the holdouts had “large quantities of automatic weapons.”

Mr. Azim said there would be no more negotiations with Mr. Ghazi.

“Enough time has already been wasted. It has to be total, unconditional surrender,” he said.

Still, he said security forces were holding back from storming the complex to avoid civilian casualties.

“As long as there are women and children inside, I don’t think that we will go in,” he said.

Mr. Aziz was nabbed yesterday evening after a female police officer checking women fleeing the mosque tried to search his body, which was concealed by a full-length black burqa. Mr. Azim, the deputy information minister, said the cleric also had been wearing high-heeled shoes.

In an interview with state-run Pakistan Television after his arrest, the gray-bearded Mr. Aziz, still dressed in a burqa, appeared calm as he said his mosque has “a relationship of love and affection with all jihadist organizations” but no actual links with them.

“We have no militants; we only had students. If somebody came from outside, I have no information on that,” Mr. Aziz said, despite past vows to stage suicide attacks if authorities attacked the mosque.

Security forces were sent to the mosque after the kidnapping of six Chinese women believed to be prostitutes, a brief abduction that drew a protest from Beijing and proved to be the last straw in a string of provocations by the mosque stretching back six months.

Militant students streamed out of the mosque to confront the government forces, leading to a daylong battle on Tuesday.

Yesterday, the Pakistani army surrounded the mosque, determined to end the actions by the clerics and students.

Mr. Aziz said that as many as 700 women and about 250 men remained inside the mosque compound and an adjacent women’s seminary, some armed with more than a dozen AK-47 assault rifles provided by “friends.”

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