ISLAMABAD (AFP) – Islamic militants led by an Al-Qaeda-linked group shot dead a senior Pakistani army commando during fierce clashes with troops on the sixth day of a siege at an Islamabad mosque.
The military said Colonel Haroon Islam died after an operation to blast through part of the wall surrounding the fortified Red Mosque complex and free some of the women and children allegedly being used as human shields.
Chief military spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad said another army officer was injured in the fighting with the Islamists led by firebrand cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi.
“Rashid Ghazi and his militants were responsible for the murder of a senior army officer,” Information Minister Mohammad Ali Durrani told AFP. “The operation will continue and Ghazi has to surrender.”
President Pervez Musharraf has warned the militants to give up or be killed. The military ruler also told the hardline students late Saturday to immediately free all women and children.
“I request these people to come out and surrender and I say this here, that they will be killed if they do not surrender,” Musharraf, wearing his army uniform, told reporters in his first public comments on the confrontation.
Pakistani forces have held back from raiding the now bullet-pocked mosque but there have intense clashes around the perimeter, including early Sunday when giant blasts echoed around the city.
Ghazi told local television that 335 people inside the mosque were killed in Sunday’s latest fighting but Durrani dismissed the claim, saying that only the soldier died and putting the toll for the entire siege at 20.
Concerns for women and children in the mosque grew after security officials said militants from a group linked to Al-Qaeda and to the murder of US journalist Daniel Pearl were now leading the mosque fighters.
“We believe there are militants from Harkatul-Jihad-e-Islami, which was involved in the Pearl murder. Based on intelligence we suspect that two commanders from the group are in there,” one senior official told AFP.
“They have taken control and they are putting up fierce resistance.”
Harkatul-Jihad-e-Islami provided shelter for Al-Qaeda militants who fled Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. It has been linked to Pearl’s 2002 beheading and a 2003 attempt to assassinate Musharraf.
“There are fears that the militants may start killing women and children inside and then blame it on the government. They know they have no escape route,” a government official said on condition of anonymity.
Those inside the compound who wished to leave risked being shot by hardline students if they attempted to climb the wall, which is seven to eight feet (2.1 to 2.4 metres) high, officials said.
Ghazi said he and his followers had enough rations, arms and ammunition inside the compound to “fight for another 25 to 30 days and we will do that, God willing.”
Ghazi, 43, also signalled his defiance by saying that he was telephoned by a man who claimed to have shot at Musharraf’s aircraft on Friday in revenge for the siege.
Security officials said earlier they were probing possible links between the mosque operation and the failed bid to shoot down the president’s plane as it took off from Chaklala military airbase at Rawalpindi, near Islamabad.
Students affiliated to the mosque have irked the government since January with a Taliban-style anti-vice campaign, which has involved the abduction of several people they linked to prostitution, including seven Chinese.
Musharraf’s tough stance has boosted his popularity after months of being embroiled in a crisis over his suspension of Pakistan’s chief justice but he is now under pressure to end the six-day mosque siege.