Tuesday, July 10, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Troops stormed the compound of Islamabad’s Red Mosque early today, prompting a fierce firefight with militants accused of holding scores of hostages, officials said. At least 20 militants and three soldiers died in the fighting.

Amid the sounds of rolling explosions, commandos attacked from three directions and quickly cleared the ground floor of the mosque, army spokesman Gen. Waheed Arshad said. About 20 children who rushed toward the advancing troops were brought to safety, he said.

Militants armed with guns, grenades and gasoline bombs were in the basement of the mosque as well as in an adjoining religious school and were putting up “tough resistance,” Gen. Arshad told a press conference.

“Those who surrender will be arrested, but the others will be treated as combatants and killed,” he said.

The assault began minutes after a delegation led by a former prime minister left the area saying that efforts to negotiate a peaceful end to a week-old siege had failed.

Clashes this month between security forces and supporters of the mosque’s hard-line clerics prompted the siege. The Muslim extremists had been trying to impose Taliban-style morality in the capital through a six-month campaign of kidnappings and threats.

Before today’s assault, at least 24 persons had been killed in and around the mosque.

The assault was signaled by blasts and gunfire. Reporters saw more than 40 ambulances approaching the area along with trucks carrying extra soldiers.

The army said at least three soldiers and 20 militants died in the assault. Rebel leader Abdul Rashid Ghazi told the private Geo TV network that his mother had been wounded by gunfire.

“The government is using full force. This is naked aggression,” he said. “My martyrdom is certain now.”

He said that about 30 militants were resisting security forces but were armed only with 14 AK-47 assault rifles.

The attack followed a botched commando raid on the high-walled mosque compound over the weekend.

President Pervez Musharraf assigned former Prime Minister Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain to try to negotiate a peaceful end to the standoff.

But Mr. Hussain and a delegation of Islamic clerics returned crestfallen from the mosque after about nine hours of talks with the rebel leader, Mr. Ghazi, via loudspeakers and cell phones.

“We offered him a lot, but he wasn’t ready to come on our terms,” Mr. Hussain told reporters waiting at the edge of the army cordon shortly before dawn.

Several explosions boomed over the city just as the vexed-looking delegates were getting into their cars, and sporadic shooting also was heard.

Later, Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim said lives would be lost in the assault.

“We have to do it with a heavy heart. After spending a full day in negotiations to save innocent lives, the operation has started,” Mr. Azim said. “I hope the waiting ambulances will remain empty, but we fear that lives will be lost.”

The siege gave the neighborhood the look of a war zone, with troops manning machine guns behind sandbagged posts and from the top of armored vehicles. Helicopters circled overhead.

Maqir Abbasi went to the barricades around the mosque seeking news of his 22-year-old sister, Yasmin.

“Whenever I hear the sounds of bullets, I feel that my sister has been harmed. We appeal to the government, we appeal to Ghazi, we appeal to everyone. I want my sister back,” he said.

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