The leader of the students besieged inside a Pakistan mosque has said his followers are ready for “martyrdom”, dashing hopes of an imminent solution to the stand-off.
Abdul Rashid Ghazi said he would not accept an unconditional surrender, insisting his radical Islamists would only lay down their arms if it was guaranteed that they would not be arrested.
“We will not surrender. We will be martyred, but we will not surrender,” Ghazi told a Pakistani television station. “We are more determined now.”
Government troops appear reluctant to mount a final offensive against the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, for fear of alienating public opinion. Liberal opponents of General Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani president, have been impressed by his restrained handling of the crisis.
Security forces have been shelling the walls and ceilings of buildings at the compound in an attempt to wear down those inside and force a negotiated settlement.
Hundreds of women and children have already left the mosque, but the authorities claim more are being forced to stay as human shields. Ghazi denies the allegations.
Abdul Aziz, Ghazi’s brother, who ran the mosque before a failed escape attempt beneath a burqa, has urged those remaining inside to give themselves up.
The fighting erupted after a six-month stand-off between the government and brothers.
Gen Musharraf, had grown embarrassed by the two brothers’ increasingly defiant anti-government antics and their demand for the imposition of Islamic law.
Several students who had fled the mosque claimed in interviews with The Daily Telegraph that some men, women and children had been prevented from leaving the mosque and madrassa that houses Pakistan’s largest girls’ seminary.
Niaz Muhammad Khan, 28, from Mardan, said: “I was with my brother in Lal Masjid as a guest when this operation was launched.”
“I tried to take my brother out of the Madrassa, but the Madrassa management refused to allow us to go out. Last night I managed to escape the place,” he added.
Yesterday troops blew up most of the wall surrounding the mosque and smashed in one of its doors with an armoured personnel carrier, according to eye witness reports.
Some of the heaviest clashes yet erupted when students opened fire on troops and hurled hand grenades, said the chief military spokesman Maj Gen Waheed Arshad.
US-built Cobra helicopter gunships flew low over the building as explosions boomed across the normally peaceful city.
Aziz was captured by police on Wednesday as he tried to flee the mosque complex wearing a burqa. He told state television that about 1,000 male and female students remained inside.
“After coming out I saw the siege was massive and came to the conclusion that we should give up,” he said. “The government has massive resources and I realised that people will not be able to stay inside for long.”
Somewhat inexplicably Aziz made his television appearance wearing a black burqa under which his grey beard was partly visible.
The interviewer asked him to take off the veil, which he then did to reveal a bemused smile.
The cleric later appeared in court charged with plotting terrorist attacks and kidnapping people, including seven Chinese nationals abducted by his students from an acupuncture clinic for allegedly running a brothel. He was later remanded in custody.
Brigadier Javed Iqbal Cheema, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, said that 1,146 people have surrendered.
“Time is passing quickly, the sooner they surrender the better it will be for them,” he said of the remaining people in the compound.
We appreciate your support
Our website includes affiliate links, which means we get a small commission — at no additional cost to you — for each qualifying purpose. For instance, as an Amazon Associate Religion News Blog earns from qualifying purchases. That is one reason why we can provide this service free of charge.