ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – More than 500 radical Muslim students surrendered at a besieged mosque in the Pakistani capital on Wednesday but thousands of militants remained inside a day after 11 people were killed in clashes.
Hundreds of soldiers and police sealed off the mosque and imposed a 24-hour curfew after Tuesday’s bloodshed, as the government extended a deadline for students to lay down arms.
The violence erupted after a months-long stand-off between the authorities and a Taliban-style movement based at Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, less than a couple of kilometres (a mile) from parliament and Islamabad’s protected diplomatic enclave.
Soldiers moved 12 armoured personnel carriers, mounted with machineguns, into the area as gunfire subsided overnight.
Growing numbers of students took up an offer of safe passage and 5,000 rupees (61 pounds) and left the mosque as a deadline for students to surrender passed at 1.00 p.m. (9:00 a.m. British time).
More than 500 people, 100 of them women and children, had left the mosque but between 2,000 and 5,000 people remained inside, officials said.
The men who surrendered were herded onto trucks while women and children were released.
Liberal politicians have for months pressed President Pervez Musharraf to crack down on Lal Masjid’s clerics, who have threatened suicide attacks if force was used against them.
Deputy Interior Minister Zafar Warraich told an earlier news conference anyone who tried to fight would be shot.
“A bullet will be responded with by a bullet,” he said.
The violence comes at a bad time for Musharraf. He is preparing for presidential and general elections and is already struggling to dampen a campaign by lawyers and the opposition against his suspension of the country’s top judge in March.
Overnight, power was cut off to the compound and surrounding neighbourhood and barbed wire laid across junctions.
The Information Ministry said 10 people had been killed in Tuesday’s clashes but Islamabad hospital officials said the toll was 11. About 150 people were taken to hospital, 30 with bullet wounds, others suffering from the effects of tear gas.
A soldier and at least four students were among the dead, as well as a television cameraman and people caught in crossfire.
The religious hardliners have confronted authorities for months, running a vigilante anti-vice drive and campaigning for strict Islamic law.
Authorities had not used force for fear it could provoke attacks or lead to casualties among female students at a religious school, or madrasa, in the mosque compound.
A suicide bomber killed nine soldiers and a child in an attack on a military convoy in Bannu, a town in North West Frontier Province on Wednesday. It was not known if the attack was linked to the Islamabad violence.
Security forces blocked the main road from Peshawar, the capital of volatile North West Frontier Province, to stop support coming in for the radicals in Islamabad.
Some clerics mediated in talks overnight but there was no sign of a breakthrough.
“The talks appear to be heading nowhere,” Abdul Rashid Ghazi, deputy leader of the students, said by telephone from the mosque.
A young woman in the mosque compound was defiant.
“Nobody wants to leave. Your faith gets stronger in a situation like this,” the student, Mahira, said by telephone.
The students affiliated with the mosque range in age from teenagers to people in their 30s, most from conservative areas near the Afghan border.
The mosque has a long history of support for militant causes, but in recent months its students have instigated a series of confrontations with the authorities.
Trouble began in January when students occupied a library to protest against the destruction of mosques built illegally on state land. They later kidnapped women, some from China, from alleged brothels. They also abducted police.
The Lal Masjid movement is part of a phenomenon known as “Talibanisation”, or the seeping of militancy from remote tribal regions on the Afghan border into towns and cites.