| A bullet-riddled wall of Lal Masjid with slogans that say: “Our nation needs rulers whose salary should be equal to a common labourer’s”. (AP)
Islamabad, July 8 (Reuters): Pakistani authorities today issued a “last warning” to a rebel Islamist cleric and his fighters holed up in an Islamabad mosque, as speculation mounted security forces would launch a full-scale assault.
Troops have surrounded Lal Masjid in Islamabad since Tuesday when clashes between armed student radicals and government forces erupted after months of tension.
The death toll from the conflict today rose to at least 21 when an officer was killed as he led commandos in a raid to blow up the walls of a girls’ madarsa, in the mosque compound, to help women and children get out.
“This is the last warning for you to surrender,” authorities said over loudspeakers outside the mosque, a resident who heard the announcement said.
Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf yesterday gave the militants a “surrender-or-die” ultimatum. He met top security officials today evening.
“The final round has begun. There’s a possibility,” a government official said when asked if an assault was imminent.
Rebel cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi has refused to surrender, saying he and his followers prefer “martyrdom”. In a statement carried by today’s newspapers the cleric said he and his followers hoped their deaths would spark a revolution.
“We have firm belief in God that our blood will lead to a revolution,” wrote Rashid.
Government and military officials say the cleric has 50 to 60 hard-core militants — some from groups linked to al Qaida — leading the fighting, and hundreds of women and children he is using as human shields.
Rashid denies anyone is being used as a human shield. Interior minister Aftab Ahmed Sherpao said militants today shot and wounded three students trying to get away. Occasional gunfire rang out during the day.
Religious affairs minister Mohammad Ejaz-ul-Haq told a news conference Lal Masjid’s defenders included militants wanted both in Pakistan and abroad. Some foreign militants were suspected of being inside, he said.
Rashid says he has nearly 2,000 followers, but no militants, with him. The minister put the number at 200 to 500.
Lal Masjid has been a hotbed of militancy for years, known for its support for Afghanistan’s Taliban and opposition to Musharraf’s backing for the US-led campaign against terrorism.
Security forces say they have refrained from mounting a full-scale assault because of fears for the women and children inside. Instead, troops have been blasting holes in the walls to provide escape routes for the women and children.
About 1,200 students left the mosque after the clashes began but the number leaving has slowed to a trickle. Interior minister Sherpao said five children got away today.
Many Pakistanis support the action against the hardliners whose behaviour, including a vigilante campaign against perceived vice, has raised concern about the spread of militant Islam.
The action against the mosque has raised fears of a backlash by its militant allies. A policeman was today killed in a blast in the northwest. It was the fourth blast since the fighting at the mosque began. Nineteen people have been killed.