ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, (AP) – Pakistani troops cornered the last remaining militants and combed the warren-like Red Mosque complex for booby traps Wednesday after assaulting the compound and killing its pro-Taliban cleric, the army spokesman said.
“The final phase is going on,” Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad told the private Geo television network. He said three of the remaining die-hard defenders had been killed overnight, and that troops were meeting resistance in just “one or two places” of the sprawling compound in the heart of the Pakistani capital.
More than 50 militants and nine soldiers were killed since the assault began in the early hours of Tuesday, including the mosque’s pro-Taliban cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the army said.
Commandos went in after unsuccessful attempts to get the mosque’s militants to surrender to a weeklong siege mounted by the government following deadly street clashes with armed supporters of the mosque on July 3.
The extremists had been using the mosque as a base to send out radicalized students to enforce their version of Islamic morality, including abducting alleged prostitutes and trying to “re-educate” them at the compound.
More than 80 people have been killed overall since the violence began.
At midmorning Wednesday, more than 30 hours after the assault began, intermittent explosions and gunfire were still heard from inside the complex.
An army officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to press, said troops were moving from room to room in basements of the compound, blowing up foxholes where militants had been entrenched. He said the three militants reported killed Tuesday night were trapped in foxholes by commandos.
The army asked reporters to prepare for a tour of the embattled site, indicating the operation was nearing its end. No details of where exactly the press would be taken were provided.
Relatives of young women, men and children who had been inside waited behind army barricades around the mosque or inquired at morgues Wednesday.
Ghazi’s body was found in the basement of a women’s religious school after a fierce gunbattle involving militants, senior Interior Ministry official Brig. Javed Iqbal Cheema said.
Several security officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity since they were not authorized to speak to the press, said Ghazi was wounded by two bullets and gave no response when ordered to surrender. Commandos then fired another volley and found him dead.
Arshad said Ghazi’s body had been removed from the mosque and handed over to the Interior Ministry.
Elite troops stormed the sprawling compound after negotiations with the mosque’s leaders failed. Gunfire and explosions thundered over the city while “Operation Silence,” as it was code-named, proceeded through the night and into Wednesday.
The military has not said who or how many people remain in the mosque.
The casualties at the Red Mosque could further turn public opinion against President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who already faces a backlash for his bungled attempts to fire the country’s chief justice.
Following several anti-government protests Tuesday, about 500 people chanting “Death to Musharraf” rallied for an hour in the northwest frontier city of Peshawar Wednesday.
“This (mosque attack) is part of our government’s action against religious elements to please America,” said Shabbir Khan, a lawmaker from an opposition Islamic party, at the demonstration.
In neighboring Afghanistan, a senior Taliban commander, Mansoor Dadullah, urged Muslims to launch suicide attacks on Pakistani security forces, calling the assault “a cruel act.”
“I would have sent 10,000 mujahideen to support the (Red Mosque) students but we are busy in Afghanistan and Islamabad is far from Afghanistan. I wished to go myself to support them,” he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Several editorials in mainstream newspapers Wednesday said Musharraf had no choice but to confront the intransigent militants.
“The decision to launch the final assault was not an easy one, but given the circumstances there was nothing else that the government could really do,” said the English-language The News.
But it questioned how the militants had managed to find a haven “inside the heart of Islamabad.”
“Surely this is a disturbing indictment of the failure of the law enforcement agencies to keep track of the movement of such elements,” it said.
Another English-language daily, Dawn, said that “no tears will be shed over the death of the well-armed militants,” praising the government for exercising “utmost restraint” in the standoff.
The U.S. State Department endorsed the Musharraf government’s decision to storm the mosque, saying that the militants had been given many warnings, and U.S. President George W. Bush reaffirmed his confidence in the Pakistani president in the fight against extremists.