ISLAMABAD, (Reuters) – President Pervez Musharraf told Islamist militants barricaded in a mosque on Saturday to surrender or die, while concern grew for hundreds of women and children inside the beseiged compound in the Pakistani capital. “If they don’t surrender, I’m saying it here, they will be killed,” Musharraf said, in his first public comments on the deadly stand-off in Islamabad.
Hundreds of troops have surrounded the fortified compound housing Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, and a girls’ madrasa, where clashes between armed students and security forces began on Tuesday following months of tension.
The death toll rose to 20 after a paramilitary soldier was shot dead on Saturday morning, though the cleric leading Lal Masjid’s Taliban-style movement said casualties were far higher. There were unconfirmed accounts of the mosque’s defenders burying more bodies on Saturday.
Explosions have blown holes in the outer walls of the compound, and fierce gunbattles have raged, but there has been no assault. Officials reckon 50 to 60 hardcore militants are leading the fighting. “We’ve shown great patience because we don’t want people to be killed,” Musharraf told reporters while visiting flood-hit Baluchistan province. “We could have done everything. The government has the power but there are women and children.”
Mosque cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi has said he would rather choose “martyrdom”, and has rejected government accusations that he is holding women and children as human shields.
Ghazi said he and his followers would lay down their weapons but would never accept arrest. “I fully stand by my position, there’s no question of arrests,” Ghazi told Reuters, speaking over the crack of rifle fire. He said three students were killed on Friday and up to 80 killed in all but the government dismissed that claim.
Water, gas and power to the mosque have been cut and food was said to be getting scarce.
On Saturday, army soldiers were deployed around the mosque, replacing paramilitary troops who have led the siege. Security forces also occupied another city madrasa linked to Lal Masjid.
A series of explosions occurred in late afternoon, while there had been several exchanges of fire since early morning.
Heavy firing prevented a five-member delegation of Islamist politicians going to Lal Masjid to press for children to be allowed to leave. They blamed security forces, as Ghazi had already given them an all-clear to visit. “Security forces are not allowing us to go in and they have opened fire,” said member of parliament Samia Raheel Qazi.
About 1,200 students left the mosque after the clashes began but only about 20 came out on Friday, among them a boy who said older students were forcing young ones to stay. On Saturday just one boy ducked out of the compound and handed himself in.
Officials say they don’t know how many people remain but there are believed to be hundreds.
Tension began rising in January when Lal Masjid students launched an anti-vice campaign that included kidnapping and intimidation to impose strict Islamic law.
Moderate politicians and the media had urged Musharraf to crack down far earlier, and despite the bloodshed newspapers have broadly supported the decision to finally use force. The Lal Masjid movement is symptomatic of religious extremism seeping into Pakistani cities from tribal border areas.
On Friday, gunmen fired from a roof-top under the flight path of Islamabad’s military airport as Musharraf was flying off to inspect flood damage in the south. Officials said privately the shooter meant to target Musharraf’s aircraft, though the attack appeared amateurish.