- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 11, 2007

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.

The intensity of the resistance shocked veteran military officers, some of whom said the militants appeared to have received the type of experience provided in the Afghan and Kashmir insurgencies or in al Qaeda training camps in Pakistan.

“They are young, but they are well-equipped and many of them are good fighters,” said Maj. Murad Khan, a military spokesman.

Other military officials insisted that operations were taking so long because of the need to blast through reinforced basement bunkers that militants had constructed in the Jamia Hafsa school, where the last holdouts fought through the afternoon and evening.

Ghazi, in a taped interview before the start of the siege, boasted about his association with Osama bin Laden and the aims of his group to combat “U.S. and Pakistani aggression” against true Muslims.

“In this so-called war on terror, President Pervez Musharraf has been attacking his own people,” Ghazi told The Washington Times in his school’s Internet cafe. “First, Musharraf gave our land to the Americans so they could attack our brothers in Afghanistan, and then he turned on us.”

The standoff followed a six-month campaign in which the mosque’s staff and students had tried to impose Taliban-style morality in Islamabad through kidnappings and threats. They focused their wrath on perceived immorality, including prostitution and American videocassettes.

Several women accused of being prostitutes had been abducted and held in the mosque for “re-education.”

The government remained deeply concerned that a high civilian death toll in the raid would further damage Gen. Musharraf’s sagging popularity.

“It is amazing how this mosque had become a center for militant activity without anyone in the government taking note,” said Zaffar Abbas, acting editor of the leading newspaper, Dawn. “It will be a major issue for the government to try to explain how these militants dug themselves in so well and why they didn’t take action much sooner.”

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