| Paramilitary troops unload ammunition at Lal Masjid on Saturday. (AP)
Islamabad, July 7 (Agencies): Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf today warned that hold-outs in a radical mosque would be killed if they didn’t emerge from the compound which has been under siege by thousands of government troops.
“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.
Explosions and intense gunfire continued overnight and today as troops ringing the mosque attempted to end the five-day standoff but held back from an all-out assault.
The death toll rose to 20 after a paramilitary soldier was shot dead today, though Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the mosque’s defiant cleric, told the local Geo television channel that more than 70 of his students had been slain by government gunfire. He said his followers preferred martyrdom to capture.
“There are 70 to 80 bodies of our students,” he said in a claim which could not be independently verified. There were also unconfirmed accounts of the mosque’s defenders burying more bodies today.
The siege has added to the risks facing Musharraf, who must cope with a gathering storm of domestic Islamic extremism as well as a popular backlash from his bungled attempt at firing the country’s chief justice.
Today, authorities were also investigating a possible assassination attempt against him, after shots were fired as Musharraf’s plane took off from a military base near the capital.
Troops surrounded the mosque and an adjoining women’s seminary after tensions between government security forces and Islamic students — who have sought to impose Taliban-style rule in the city — erupted into deadly street clashes.
While more than 1,200 people, mainly students from the mosque’s two Islamic schools, have fled the complex, officials say up to 100 armed militants and an unknown number of students remain inside.
Rashid, who has sought safe passage for himself and his followers, today reiterated that he would not surrender.
“We are ready to lay down arms, but we should not be arrested,” the former civil servant turned rigid Islamist said, adding: “We are ready to be martyred.”
Pakistan’s interior minister Aftab Khan Sherpao rejected the conditional surrender offer, insisting that Rashid would have to face the courts.
As the confrontation approached its 100th hour today, a dozen loud explosions rocked the area near the mosque and security officials deployed there said they were continuing to demolish sections of the mosque’s perimeter.
Gunfire was also heard as a delegation of clerics headed towards the mosque to meet Rashid and convince him to surrender, according to Shah Abdul Aziz, a lawmaker who is closely associated with the cleric.
Syed Bilal, one of the delegates, said Rashid was ready to meet with them but that security officials had stopped them from going inside because of the intense gunfire.