President Pervez Musharraf was due to address the nation Thursday after the deadly storming of a pro-Taliban mosque, as Al-Qaeda urged Pakistanis to embrace jihad and revolt against his rule.
Bodies from the raid were being buried a day after troops cleared the final clutch of diehard extremists from the Red Mosque following two days of intense fighting that left at least 73 rebels and nine soldiers dead.
Military ruler Musharraf, under pressure from both Islamist groups and opposition parties, was expected to make a televised evening address to the world’s second-largest Muslim nation.
Officials said he would explain why the raid on the mosque and an adjoining Islamic girls’ school was necessary, and unveil an initiative to fight extremism and augment security forces in troubled areas bordering Afghanistan.
Al-Qaeda’s second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri told Pakistani Muslims in a new Internet posting that there was “no salvation for you except through jihad (holy fight)” and called on them to rise up against the government.
“If you do not revolt, Musharraf will annihilate you. Musharraf will not stop until he uproots Islam from Pakistan,” he said.
“Rigged elections and politics will not help you… You should now support the mujahedin (holy warriors) in Afghanistan.”
More than 2,000 mourners turned out for the funeral of the leader of the mosque’s militants, 43-year-old Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who was buried in his native village in Punjab province after he was killed in the assault Tuesday.
In the capital Islamabad meanwhile at least 27 unidentified bodies were buried by officials, an AFP photographer said.
Soldiers kept the mosque compound, in the heart of Islamabad’s central government district, off-limits behind barbed wire and machine gun nests, amid questions on whether the official death toll would rise.
Pakistani authorities said they have found no mass graves inside the mosque, even though its late cleric had said hundreds of people had been buried there.
“No mass graves have been found inside,” Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azeem told AFP by telephone from inside the Red Mosque compound as senior officials visited the site.
However a severed head was also discovered by security officials, indicating that there was a suicide blast during the operation, Azeem said. An unused suicide belt packed with explosives was also found.
Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said on Tuesday that no bodies of women or children had been found despite earlier statements by officials that the Islamists were holding hundreds of them in the mosque.
But some newspapers and observers expressed doubt.
“It will be a sort of miracle if no woman or children died,” human rights activist and lawyer Anees Jillani told AFP, adding that “it is a big achievement for the army then.”
Around 60 women and children have emerged from the complex since special forces launched the assault at dawn on Tuesday.
Another 1,300 people, around two-thirds of them women, fled earlier in the standoff. Officials said initial estimates of the number who left when the raid started appeared to have been overstated.
“The bodies will be fingerprinted and photographed for identification and investigation,” a senior security official said, as many parents were still awaiting news about their relatives.
Ghazi and students at the mosque, which houses a female madrassa, had been involved in an aggressive Taliban-style campaign for Islamic law in the capital, including the kidnapping of seven Chinese accused of prostitution.
Officials have said that militants with links to Al-Qaeda and Afghanistan’s Taliban movement were holed up in the compound. Ministers have said some Uzbek militants were among several foreigners inside.
The mosque siege followed street battles that broke out on July 3 between police and the mosque’s radical students.
The mosque uprising in the heart of the capital, close to foreign embassies, has posed an unprecedented challenge to Musharraf, a key ally in the US-led “war on terror.”
US intelligence chiefs urged Pakistan Thursday to wage a more vigorous pursuit of terrorism, warning that its lawless region bordering Afghanistan has become a sanctuary for Al-Qaeda and Taliban diehards.