ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, (AP) -A radical cleric captured by security forces while fleeing in a woman’s burqa said Thursday that the nearly 1,000 followers still inside his government-besieged mosque in Pakistan’s capital should escape or surrender.
The comments by head cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz of the Red Mosque, or Lal Masjid — who also said the people still inside would not be able to hold out for long — indicated that the tense standoff in the heart of Islamabad might soon end without further bloodshed.
However, gunfire erupted around the mosque after a noon deadline demanding a total surrender passed. Four helicopters hovered over the area. Authorities barred journalists from getting near.
The Pakistani army surrounded the mosque Wednesday, a day after at least 16 people were killed in clashes between security forces and armed activists from the mosque, whose clerics have defied the government for months with a drive to impose Taliban-style Islamic law in the city.
In recent months, the clerics have challenged the government by sending students of the mosque to kidnap alleged prostitutes and police in an anti-vice campaign.
The tensions erupted into a daylong battle on Tuesday between security forces and student followers of the mosque — some of whom were heavily armed and masked. Officials have reported at least 16 people killed and scores injured.
Aziz was nabbed Wednesday evening after a female police officer checking women fleeing the mosque tried to search his body, which was concealed by a full-length black burqa.
In an interview on state-run television, Aziz said that as many as 700 women and about 250 men remained inside the mosque compound and an adjacent women’s seminary, some armed with more than a dozen AK-47 assault rifles provided by “friends.”
“If they can get out quietly they should go, or they can surrender if they want to,” he said. “I saw after coming out that the siege is very intense … Our companions will not be able to stay for long.”
Officials said over 1,100 militants had given up and more emerged early Thursday as police using loudspeakers urged the hold-outs to surrender.
The gray-bearded Aziz, still dressed in a burqa, appeared calm as he said his mosque has “a relationship of love and affection with all jihadist organizations” but no actual links with them.
“We have no militants, we only had students. If somebody came from outside, I have no information on that,” he said, also denying his previous vow to launch suicide bombers in event of a government attack on the mosque.
Aziz and the mosque’s deputy leader, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, are named in more than 20 police cases, including involvement in terrorism and fleeing justice, said police official Akhtar Nawaz. But the two, who are brothers, have not yet been charged.
“They have no options but to surrender,” said Javed Iqbal Cheema, a government spokesman. “The government is not into dialogue with these clerics.”
All women and children will be granted amnesty, but males involved in killings and other crimes as well as top mosque leaders will face legal action, said Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim.
One mosque follower who decided to give up, 15-year-old Maryam Qayyeum, said Wednesday that those who stayed in the seminary “only want martyrdom.”
“They are happy,” she said. “They don’t want to go home.”
Qayyeum said mosque leaders were not trying to stop students from giving up. But her mother, who had come to take her home said, “They are making speeches. They want to incite them.”
Johar Ali, 20, who had come to the mosque to support the militants several days ago, said he did not see any suicide bombers.
The bloodshed has added to a sense of crisis in Pakistan, where President Gen. Pervez Musharraf — a major ally of President Bush — already faces emboldened militants near the Afghan border and a pro-democracy movement triggered by his botched attempt to fire the country’s chief justice.