A radical Pakistani mosque on Saturday threatened forceful retaliation if the government launches an operation against it after President Pervez Musharraf said it housed suicide bombers.
"We have read the statement by Musharraf and we want to warn him that in case of an operation against our mosque and the seminary we will put up a very forceful retaliation," Abdul Rashid Ghazi, from Islamabad's Red Mosque and Jamia Hafsa seminary, said.
The English-language Pakistani newspaper Dawn quoted military ruler Musharraf as saying many potential suicide bombers were inside the mosque, which is seen as a militant hub in the heart of the capital.
Militants linked to extremist groups, including Al Qaeda, were hiding in the mosque with explosives and could cause havoc in the event of an armed operation against them, he said.
"Let it be clear that action against Lal Masjid (the Red Mosque) and Jamia Hafsa Brigade was not withheld because of government weakness or cowardice," Musharraf said in the report.
The seminary's students launched an anti-vice drive in January and have kidnapped police and civilians recently, including six Chinese women from what they alleged was a brothel in the capital. They eventually released the captives.
The president, a key US ally in the so called ‘War on Terror’, has faced mounting criticism home and abroad over the failure to crackdown on the Red Mosque's campaign to enforce Taliban-style Islamic Sharia laws.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf had said on Friday that suicide bombers from an al Qaeda-linked militant group are holed up in a mosque in the centre of the capital, Islamabad.
Authorities have been locked in a tense standoff for months with clerics and students associated with Lal Masjid, the Red Mosque, who are pushing for imposition of Taliban-style social values in Islamabad.
Clerics at the mosque had threatened suicide attacks if government used force against them.
Speaking to reporters, Musharraf said militants of Jaish-e-Mohammad, an al Qaeda-linked group fighting Indian rule in the disputed Kashmir region, were hiding in the mosque. "They are indoctrinated people," he told a workshop on journalism.
"There are also people associated to Jaish-e-Mohammad. They have explosives. Many of them are ready to carry out suicide attacks," he added.
Musharraf, who survived two al Qaeda-inspired assassination attempts, said the government had tried to resolve the standoff through negotiations to avoid bloodshed in the sprawling mosque complex, which also houses a religious seminary or madrasa.
"I am not a coward person ... but the issue is tomorrow you will say what have you done. There are women and children inside," he said.
Lal mosque has long been known as the headquarters of pro-Taliban radicals in Islamabad but trouble began in January when female students attached to the mosque occupied a library next to their madrasa to protest over a campaign to remove mosques built illegally on state land.
In March, students abducted three Pakistani women they accused of running a brothel and held them for several days before forcing them to confess and releasing them.
They have also abducted and briefly held policemen, and warned video shops to stop selling Western and Indian films they deemed obscene.
They caused a huge embarrassment for the government last week when they abducted nine people, including six Chinese women, from a massage centre, accusing them of running a brothel. The detainees were released after about 17 hours.