ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Tuesday, July 10 €” The Pakistani military mounted an operation early Tuesday to enter a mosque complex where Islamic militants and students have been holed up since last week, a military spokesman told reporters. Heavy explosions could be heard across the city after 40 minutes of gunfire, indicating the commandos were blasting walls.
The government said that 20 children had escaped. Three elite police commandos were killed and seven others injured in the raid, a doctor told Agence France-Presse.
Military officials told reporters that commandos had entered the building of the women’s religious school inside the complex and gained positions on the roof. The women’s school is called Jamia Hafsa, and some of the women students had been reported to be inside , while most of the male students and armed militants were concentrated in the mosque itself.
The operation began hours after the conclusion of efforts by a delegation of politicians and clerics who had gone to the perimeter of the complex on Monday to try to reach an agreement with the militants.
The attempt at a negotiated settlement was a sharp turnaround in tactics for the government, after six days of gun battles and ultimatums demanding unconditional surrender.
The delegation was authorized by the president of Pakistan, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz as a last-ditch effort to end the siege and release the students and some of their family members who are being held inside as hostages, government officials said. Under discussion was a face-saving option that would allow the militants’ leader, Abdur Rashid Ghazi, to surrender himself and all the weapons inside the mosque to senior clerics, two senior officials said.
The negotiating team did not enter the mosque, but did talk with the militants by cellphone and loudspeaker as they waited outside.
Until Tuesday’s assault, at least 24 people had been reported killed since gunfire broke out July 3, and scores, perhaps hundreds of students, teachers and militants remain inside the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, complex and the adjacent religious school. The siege began after mosque leaders used students to campaign for the imposition of Islamic law in Pakistan.
The delegation was led by Chaudhry Shujat Hussain, who is the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League, the ruling party. It included 12 clerics led by Mufti Rafi Usmani, the highest-ranking cleric of Pakistan. It also included Abdul Sattar Edhi, Pakistan’s most well-known humanitarian figure, and Sumaira Malik, the minister for women’s development.
“The main point is that the people being held inside should be let go,” said Muhammad Ali Durrani, the Pakistani information minister.
At 11:30 p.m. on Monday, after four hours of talks, the delegation left its position outside the mosque and headed back to the army office of General Musharraf in Rawalpindi to brief him on the negotiations, local news channels reported.
It was not clear why the government changed its tactics after demanding the unconditional surrender of the militants for days, and after the death on Sunday of a Pakistani Army officer who was leading an operation at the mosque. It may reflect concern for the public backlash as the militants’ attitude has hardened, and the danger of civilian casualties and damage to the holy site of a mosque would seem inevitable if the military mounted an all-out assault.
There is also a growing concern among government officials that the longer the siege lasts, the greater the danger of militants around the country intensifying their attacks. The Supreme Court also became involved as it considered several pleas regarding the standoff at the mosque complex, and it called on the government to allow the clerics to meet with Mr. Ghazi.
“Our strategy is to save the maximum number of lives, especially of females and children,” said the interior minister, Aftab Khan Sherpao. “Some clerics had expressed their wish and they are being given an opportunity.”
The government has accused Mr. Ghazi and hard-line militants of forcing the students, and a group of relatives who approached the mosque to try to retrieve their children, to stay inside as human shields. Two female students who tried to climb a wall to escape yesterday were shot in the legs, Mr. Durrani said.
The mood in and around the mosque had become so tense that the clerics on the negotiating team did not enter the mosque compound and Mr. Ghazi refused to come out to meet their convoy of cars. The first contact was made by loudspeaker, and Mr. Ghazi replied by a telephone message. Mrs. Malik then passed her cellphone through her driver and someone emerged from the mosque to take it.
Some of the militants inside the mosque are hardened fighters and some are wanted men from banned jihadi groups, government officials are now saying. Mr. Sherpao confirmed that among those inside are members of the banned group Jaish-e-Muhammad, a group that trained men to fight in Kashmir but has also been involved in hijackings, car bombings and assassination attempts on the president and has been linked with Al Qaeda.
Ismail Khan contributed reporting from Peshawar, Pakistan.
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