Radical cleric found dead during assault on mosque

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The head cleric at a radical mosque that was the target of a daylong assault by government forces was found dead today, Pakistani authorities said.

About 50 Islamic militants holed up inside the mosque were killed in the fighting, as were eight Pakistani soldiers. But government troops had not yet completed their takeover of the Red Mosque compound in Islamabad, and the death toll could rise.

The assault began before dawn with a burst of explosions and gunfire. Throughout the day, armored vehicles and ambulances rumbled back and forth, while the anxious parents of students at two Islamic seminaries inside the compound waited behind barbed-wire barricades for word of their relatives.

The cleric, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, had said in the early hours of the assault that he expected to be “martyred,” insisting he would die rather than give himself up. The circumstances of his death were uncertain; Pakistani authorities said he had been shot and wounded, but it was not clear whether he had died of those wounds or took his own life as troops closed in.

Ghazi had made his last stand in the basement of the mosque, where authorities said the militants used students, including women and boys, as human shields. Their fate was not yet known.

Dozens of women and children escaped or were freed in the first hours of the fighting.

Authorities launched their assault after a weeklong standoff that began when militants inside fired shots at Pakistani police. The siege had tightened by the day, but the government of President Pervez Musharraf tried repeatedly to negotiate with the holdouts — out of concern, they said, for the hostages.

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The two Islamic seminaries, or madrasas, had an enrollment of about 5,000 students, but the number inside at the time the assault began was not known. About 1,200 of them had surrendered last week early in the standoff.

The militants put up a fierce fight with assault rifles, firebombs and grenades, Pakistani officials said.

The resistance was evidently tougher than expected; in the early-morning hours, military officials told journalists they expected seizure of the mosque would take two or three hours. But at nightfall, troops were still battling for control of a few areas of the sprawling compound, including the basement where Ghazi died.

Militants used the mosque’s minarets as snipers’ nests, and authorities reported that booby traps had been placed at many locations in the complex.

Ghazi and his brother Abdul Aziz, formerly the chief cleric, had instructed followers in the last six months to embark on a vigilante-style campaign to impose Islamic law, or Sharia, in the capital. Students kidnapped police officers, abducted suspected prostitutes and harassed the owners of video and music stores.

Abdul Aziz was captured last week trying to flee the mosque in a woman’s burka, or head-to-toe veil.

In recent days, government officials had said hard-core members of Pakistani militant groups had made their way into the mosque during recent weeks and stockpiled a large arsenal of weapons and ammunition.

The mosque, a landmark in the center of the capital, has long been a hotbed of anti-government and anti-American sentiment, with the two cleric brothers advocating a Taliban-inspired social order.

Special correspondent Zaidi reported from Islamabad and Times staff writer King from Istanbul, Turkey.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday July 10, 2007.
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