The stand-off between Pakistani troops and militant clerics and students of Lal Masjid escalated on Wednesday as they exchanged heavy fire, while over 800 students surrendered amid reports that security forces may storm the complex.
The authorities extended the deadline periodically for students to surrender as hardcore elements with suspected links to miltant group Jaish-e-Mohammad continued to remain defiant and exchanged automatic weapons fire, a day after clashes left 21 dead and 150 injured.
Two hundred burqa clad girls were among those who surrendered and the number of militants in the mosque and a women's seminary was not known as armoured personnel carriers kept a tight vigil at Lal Masjid. Helicopter gunships also circled overhead.
Curfew was imposed in the area surrounding the mosque and electricity to the complex cut in the night with authorities making repeated pleas to those inside the complex to surrender. President Pervez Musharraf has offered an Amnesty package to those who surrender.
Tear gas shelling inside mosque
The Pakistani forces resorted to tear gas shelling to drive out those holed up in the mosque, Chief Commissioner of the Islamabad Police, Chaudhry Iftikhar said.
This resulted in firing from inside the mosque, leading to heavy exchange of fire between the two sides, media reports said. Musharraf has cleared an operation, if necessary, to flush out the militants, "DawnNews" television reported.
Information Minister Mohammad Ali Durrani told a press conference the government was working to "ensure minimum loss of human lives during any operation against Lal Masjid."
Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who is the administrator of the mosDurrani, who along with Azim addressed the press conference, said the government had no idea about the exact number of militants holed up inside the mosque. "It can be a few hundred or even more than that. Tactical strategy is to get them out but I do not like to discuss at this point. We want all of them to come out with minimum damage," he said.
2,000 to 5,000 militants inside mosque
Azim, however, said later that there were likely to be 2,000 to 5,000 militant holed up inside the mosque.
He also declined to discuss a final deadline for surrender. "We are not giving an exact time for the surrender but we want immediate solution. If the mosque and seminary were not vacated, then action would be taken. If they surrender, there is no need to take action," Azim said.
He said that those students, who have killed people and burnt government property, would face action but the innocent would be allowed to go home. Azim said that hospitals have been put on alert but added that "we hope there would be no such situation which causes more casualties."
He said the government had been showing maximum restraint, adding that "we can solve the problem amicably."
The magnitude of the crisis generated by the Lal Masjid stand-off is such that suspended Chief Justice Iftikhar M Chaudhry's case in the Supreme Court has been relegated to backseat.que, continued to talk to the media over phone asserting that they would not surrender unless the government agreed for a negotiated settlement, which included their surrender before a team of religious clerics and not the military.
Some of those surrendered said they heard a speech by another top cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz in the afternoon but they had not seen him.
Some TV channels here speculated that Aziz slipped out of the mosque on Tuesday itself before the operation began but there was no confirmation yet.
Meanwhile the death toll in the exchange of gunfire between the two sides mounted to 21 and the government said it could confirm 16 deaths.
However, students surrendering before the military said they also saw four bodies of girls in the compound of the mosque. "We are not sure about the figures and cannot confirm the story of bodies in the Masjid. We can confirm 16 deaths," Information Minister Muhammad Ali Durrani Local Aaj TV, however, said the toll touched 21.
The government, meanwhile, ruled out extending amnesty to Aziz and Ghazi. Minister of State for Information, Tariq Azim, said the two clerics would not get amnesty and face trial for terrorism, murder as well as abduction of Chinese nationals in Islamabad on June 27.