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Lal Masjid siege drags on

Gunmen fire Musharraf's aircraft as it took off while a radical cleric hole up with hundreds of followers at an Islamabad mosque said they would rather die than surrender.

world Updated: Jul 06, 2007 19:44 IST
Mian Khursheed

Gunmen fired at Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's aircraft as it took off on Friday, while a radical cleric holed up with hundreds of followers at an Islamabad mosque said they would rather die than surrender.

There was no indication the attack on Musharraf's plane was connected with the siege at the Red Mosque, now in its fourth day, but it will inevitably add to a sense of foreboding over risks posed to Pakistan's stability by Islamist militants.

Adding to a sense of crisis, a suicide bomber killed six soldiers in a northwest region where the hardliners in the Islamabad mosque have many allies.

The military denied there had been an attack on the president but later called a news conference. An intelligence officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there had been an unsuccessful attempt on Musharraf's life.

"There was an attempt, that was missed," said the officer.

US ally Musharraf, who came to power in a military coup in 1999, survived two assassination attempts by al Qaeda-linked militants in Rawalpindi in December 2003.

A Reuters photographer saw two large guns mounted on the roof of a two-storey house close to Islamabad's military airport, and a neighbour said he heard firing. One appeared to be an anti-aircraft gun, the other a light machinegun.

They were placed between satellite dishes and a water tank on the flat roof, under the flight path close to the runway. A low wall ran around the perimeter of the roof.

Security is normally deployed ahead of president's flights, the timings of which are kept secret. Forces cordoned off the house and the owner, a shopkeeper, had been detained.


WE CAN BE MARTYRED

Musharraf has not commented publicly on the siege at Islamabad's Red Mosque, or Lal Masjid, but has urged security agencies to be patient and allow maximum time for parents to take children out of a madrasa, or school, in the mosque compound.

At least 19 people have been killed in clashes that erupted outside the mosque on Tuesday, and the compound housing the mosque and madrasa has been under siege by hundreds of troops and police. Water, gas and electricity supplies have been cut.

The cleric inside, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, said late on Thursday he and the followers of his Taliban-style movement were willing to surrender but he also set conditions, including safe passage.

The government rejected his demands and insisted Ghazi release women and children, authorities say he is holding as human shields, and surrender unconditionally.

But Ghazi told Geo TV he would not bow to pressure: "We can be martyred, but we will not court arrest."

A boy who surrendered after sneaking out of the mosque said older students were forcing younger ones to stay.

"Food is running low and water is also limited," Ashraf Swati, 15, told Reuters, adding several wounded students were inside and the stench from dead bodies hung in the air.

Intermittent gunfire and explosions have rocked the neighbourhood since Tuesday, and on Friday a burst of intensive fire trapped a handful of parents who had been allowed into the mosque to bring out children.

Militants later fired on other parents approaching the mosque, wounding one.

Tension between authorities and the mosque had been rising since January when the students, most of whom are in their 20s and 30s, launched an increasingly provocative campaign to press for various demands including action against vice.

They threatened suicide attacks if suppressed.

There was no indication a suicide bomber who threw himself at an army jeep killing six soldiers in the northwest was acting in support of the Red Mosque radicals, but the mosque is known to have supporters in the region.

Ghazi's elder brother and chief mosque cleric, Abdul Aziz, was caught on Wednesday trying to flee disguised in a burqa. He later called on followers to give up.

About 1,200 students have come out. Aziz said there were some 850 students inside while Ghazi put the number at 1,900.

Many Pakistanis welcomed the action against a movement reminiscent of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and symptomatic of the religious extremism seeping into cities from tribal border areas.

Moderate politicians and the media had urged Musharraf to act sooner but he cited concern about bloodshed and authorities tried to appease them.