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Militants refuse to give in
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Gunfire and explosions rocked a besieged radical mosque in Pakistan’s capital yesterday as Islamic militants holed up in the complex snubbed a plea from their captured leader to surrender.
The leader of the holdouts said they would consider leaving but only if authorities promised not to arrest anyone and met other demands. The government answered that the militants must surrender without conditions, and outbursts of gunfire erupted periodically during the night.
The army seemed to be holding back from a large-scale assault. The government was keen to avoid a bloodbath that would further damage President Pervez Musharraf’s embattled administration and said troops would not storm the mosque while women and children were inside.
Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao said soldiers were trying to blast holes in the walls of the fortresslike compound of the mosque and an adjoining seminary for girls, seeking to wear down the defenders’ resolve and force a surrender without a bloody battle.
It wasn’t clear how many people were holed up in the compound. The Interior Ministry said about 30 die-hard extremists were inside, while intelligence officials said there could be as many as 100. The military said several hundred students also might be in the compound.
Soldiers backed by armored vehicles and helicopters surrounded the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, before dawn Wednesday, a day after the start of clashes between security forces and radical followers of the mosque that have killed at least 19 persons.
The violence brought to a head a six-month standoff between Pakistan’s U.S.-backed government and its top cleric, Maulana Abdul Aziz, who challenged Gen. Musharraf with a drive to impose Taliban-style Islamic law in Islamabad.
Journalists were barred from the area around the mosque, but several explosions were heard during a period of intense gunfire before dusk yesterday, sending a plume of black smoke into the sky.
A leader inside the mosque accused troops of firing several mortar rounds that killed 27 female students.
“A large section of the mosque is damaged and fires have broken out in the Jamia Hafsa” seminary, Abdul Qayyum told the Associated Press by telephone, coughing repeatedly. “It’s total chaos here. There is smoke everywhere and a fire in the room where we were keeping dead bodies” from earlier skirmishes.
The shooting later eased, and the smoke cleared.
Officials said they were using helicopters and explosions in hopes of breaking the nerve of the mosque defenders and inducing a surrender.
“We are using restraint on instructions from the president so that people surrender voluntarily,” Mr. Sherpao said.
Mr. Abdul Aziz, who was captured Wednesday evening as he tried to slip through the army cordon disguised in a woman’s burqa and high heels, said on state television that as many as 700 women and about 250 men remained inside the complex, armed with more than a dozen AK-47 assault rifles.
“If they can get out quietly, they should go, or they can surrender if they want to,” Mr. Abdul Aziz said. “I saw after coming out that the siege is very intense. … Our companions will not be able to stay for long.”
By Andrew P. Napolitano
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