Pakistani commandos stormed a besieged mosque in Islamabad early this morning moments after negotiations between the country’s leaders and Islamic militants broke down.
At least 40 militants and three soldiers have been killed, the army said. The remaining fighters are reported to have moved to a basement within the compound in preparation for a final battle.
Loud explosions and gunfire were heard as the troops entered the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, in a dawn raid. About 20 of the children who had been held hostage inside the mosque by the rebel group led by Abdul Rashid Ghazi escaped as the military exchanged gunfire with the militants.
Commandos attacked the mosque from three directions about 4 am local time and quickly cleared the ground floor, General Waheed Arshad, the army spokesman, said. “This is the final assault,” he said. “We expect to clear the mosque and madrassa in the next few hours. Around 20 children managed to slip out and they are with the troops now.”
Militants armed with machine guns, rocket launchers and gasoline bombs put up tough resistance from the basement of the mosque and fired from its minarets, General Arshad said, adding that they also booby trapped some areas.
About five hours after the assault began, resistance continued in parts of the compound, which also includes an adjoining religious school. Gunfire and explosions still boomed over the city.
Some 40 militants had been killed, General Arshad said, adding that three special forces commandos were killed and 15 wounded. Twenty-four fleeing people were captured by security forces, he said. “Those who surrender will be arrested, but the others will be treated as combatants and killed,” he said. Ambulances are taking wounded on both sides to hospitals.
Pakistan’s Religious Affairs Minister Mohammed Ijaz ul-Haq said foreign militants were among those fighting with the mosque defenders. He did not give the numbers or their nationalities.
Shortly before the raid Abdul Rashid Ghaiz, the top-ranking cleric still inside the mosque who had wanted safe passage for himself and fellow rebels, claimed that the Government had not wanted to negotiate. He told a television station: “I question whether the Government ever intended to resolve the crisis. These people want nothing but genocide.”
About two hours after today’s assault began, Mr Ghazi told the private Geo TV network in a telephone interview that his mother had been wounded by gunshot. There has been no immedidate official confirmation of his claim but one of Mr Ghazi’s aides, Abdul Rahman, later said she had died.
Abdul Rahman told Geo that about 30 militants were resisting security forces but were only armed with 14 AK-47 assault rifles. Troops had seized the mosque but resistance was continuing from the seminary, he said.
The raid began after the failure of an attempt by political and religious leaders to persuade the militants to lay down their weapons.
President Musharraf deployed thousands of troops to the mosque last Wednesday, a day after a bloody gun battle between security forces and followers of the radical clerics who lead a movement to establish Taleban-style Islamic rule in the capital.
At least 24 people, including a special forces commander, had earlier been killed during the stand-off. The Government claims that militants are holding hundreds of women and children who were studying at the mosque.
Although there has not been much sympathy for Red Mosque militants across the country, the siege has sparked anti-government protests in North West Frontier Province and the tribal region bordering Afghanistan. In the restive tribal area of Bajaur, a wanted Pakistani Taleban leader, flanked by masked gunmen, vowed revenge for the attacks on the Red Mosque, as a crowd of more than 10,000 tribesmen chanted anti-Musharraf and anti-US slogans.
Suspected Islamists were also blamed for the killings of three Chinese engineers in Peshawar on Sunday, apparently in response to the mosque stand-off. Witnesses said that a number of bearded men came to the building where the Chinese had set up a factory to manufacture auto-rickshaws, spraying it with bullets.
President General Musharraf had assigned Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, the former Prime Minister, to hold talks with the rebels. But after nine hours of talks yesterday via loudspeakers and mobile phones his delegation departed. Within minutes the first explosions were heard.