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Heavy firing reported around Lal Masjid

world Updated: Jul 10, 2007 16:11 IST

IANS
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Heavy firing was reported around the Lal Masjid complex here Thursday, interspersed with a number of explosions, one of which demolished the front wall of the girls' madrassa in the continued standoff between Pakistani government forces and heavily armed Islamists in the heart of the capital.

Geo TV showed images of three helicopter gunships over the besieged complex as large explosions were heard over live television.

Windows of buildings nearby were shattered by the explosions.

There was an intense exchange of fire for about 10 minutes early this morning and mortar shells were fired for the first time in the two-day standoff. The firing stopped at 3:50 a.m. and an announcement was made on loudspeakers asking the Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa women's seminary inmates to vacate the buildings.

"Otherwise, force would be used against them," the announcement said.

Immediately after the announcement two more explosions were heard and firing restarted. The security forces also resorted to heavy tear-gas shelling.

At least three armed personnel carriers (APCs) participated in the operation.

The firing stopped after 20 minutes to give time to the students to come out. However, none of the students came out in the next 10 minutes. Maulana Rasheed Ghazi along with hundreds of students is in the Lal Masjid.

The News said in its website: "The firing coupled with sporadic blasts is being heard far and wide. The atmosphere is awash with black smoke. The security forces have been put on high alert and journalists have been pushed back."

Rangers forbade the parents of Lal Masjid students from going near the complex.The government has confirmed 20 deaths and 92 injured in the last two days.

Meanwhile, deputy chief cleric of Lal Masjid Maulana Abdur Rasheed Ghazi said he was ready for talks, which the government has declined.

But when he was asked about his surrender in the course of an interview by Geo News, a private TV channel, Ghazi was annoyed saying, "we are not terrorists; terrorists are asked to surrender their weapons; we want negotiations to end the standoff. We are on (the) defence and committing no aggression".

Apparently suing for peace, Ghazi said that he would again contact the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Qaid) chief Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain during the day.

Efforts by Hussain to broker an end to the standoff, persisting for the past six months, have failed earlier.

Talking to Geo News, Ghazi hoped that the matter would be resolved "within three hours".

He said there were still 2,000 students in the complex that also has two seminaries, Jamia Rasheedia for the men and Jamia Hafsa for women. Half of the students inside were women, he claimed.

The students were there on their own volition and they had not been coerced, he told the channel.

Replying to a question he said initially he himself sent the disabled and ailing children out of the seminary.

Talking about arrest of his brother, chief cleric of Lal Masjid Maulana Abdul Aziz, who had sought to escape wearing a burqa, Ghazi claimed that this was "under a plan".

Claiming that Lal Masjid had been targeted by tank shells, Ghazi said he was "asking for two days for removing the dead bodies from the mosque but no person is ready to talk".

More than 1,200 people, including women religious students, left the besieged mosque and its adjoining Jamia Hafsa madrassa in groups as the authorities repeatedly extended the deadline set on Wednesday for launching a full-force assault, DPA adds.

Security personnel frisked those leaving the barricaded compound and transported the men to a prison and the women to a public building in the neighbouring city of Rawalpindi.

According to information minister Mohammad Ali Durrani, all the women and minors would be granted general amnesty, but the men would be charged with crimes they committed during the clashes.

The high drama outside the Red Mosque began Tuesday morning when some stick-wielding students attacked a police checkpoint near their madrassa and seized four officials along with their weapons and two radios, triggering heavy shelling with tear-gas canisters by riot police.