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Last-ditch talks over mosque

Islamabad, July 9 (Agencies): The Pakistan government tonight held last-ditch talks over loudspeakers and cellphones with a radical cleric and hundreds of militants holed up in the Lal Masjid here but there were little indications of a breakthrough.

“Based on the talks held so far, I cannot say that there can be a big breakthrough. But this is an effort which we are making based on humanitarian considerations,” information minister Muhammad Ali Durrani told reporters.

Durrani, who was part of the government delegation, said the talks to arrange the surrender of the mosque’s deputy administrator, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, under the supervision of a district sessions judge as directed by the supreme court continued till late into the night through cellphones.

The decision to send the delegation was taken by President Pervez Musharraf, who assigned ex-premier Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain to try and negotiate a peaceful end to the standoff.

“We have come here to play our role to resolve the issue. We hope that all these women and children who are inside should be allowed to come out,” Hussain told reporters as he led a delegation of negotiators including several religious leaders through an army cordon toward the mosque.

Security forces fired teargas and traded intermittent fire with gunmen inside the compound housing the mosque and a girl’s religious school.

Troops have surrounded the compound since Tuesday last week when clashes between armed student radicals and government forces erupted after months of tension. At least 21 people have died.

The government has demanded Ghazi and his hardcore fighters surrender or die. Ghazi has refused, saying he would prefer martyrdom. He said he and the followers of his Taliban-style movement hoped their deaths would spark an Islamic revolution.

Security forces say they have held back from mounting a full-scale assault because of fears for the women and children inside. Troops have instead blasted holes in the walls to provide escape routes for them to get out.

Durrani said six parents who went in to bring out their children had been taken hostage, he said. “If this effort fails we have other options, too,” Durrani added. “The basic strategy of the government is to rescue the maximum number of people.”

The government said the mosque’s defenders include wanted militants. Many of the 200 to 500 students inside have been forced or persuaded to stay, it says. Ghazi said he has nearly 2,000 followers with him but no militants and that no one is being held hostage.

A woman, who feared her daughter had been killed and buried in the compound, begged to go inside as she waited with about a dozen other parents.

“I request the law enforcement agencies to let me go inside. I can go alone, and I know nobody will fire from inside. I know these people very well,” Asia Bibi said.

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