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Light gunfire at Pakistani mosque

Militants in a Pakistani mosque compound exchange fire with security forces, but there was no sign of an imminent assault.
Reuters | By Zeeshan Haider
UPDATED ON JUL 10, 2007 04:04 PM IST

Militants in a Pakistani mosque compound exchanged fire with security forces on Monday, but there was no sign of an imminent assault the morning after the government gave "a final warning" to surrender.

Holes have been blown in outer walls of the compound housing Islamabad's Lal Masjid and a girls' madrasa, where the government says up to 500 followers of a rebel cleric's Taliban-style movement have battened down for a long siege.

As the stand-off entered its seventh day, Muslim clerics said they were trying to persuade the government to hold off, while they tried to find a way to avoid a bloodbath in the heart of the Pakistani capital.

With at least 21 people killed so far in the violence that began last Tuesday, government forces have attempted to give women and children inside the compound time to flee.

But there are fears some have been either coerced or persuaded to stay behind to act as human shields.

"It is encouraging to see less exchanges of fire, but that will not solve the problem. We want this to end one way or the other," Mohammad Saleem, an office worker who lived nearby, said impatiently.

Authorities outside the mosque compound blared out over loudspeakers what they said was a final warning on Sunday evening, fuelling speculation an assault was imminent.

"We're doing our best to avoid bloodshed, especially of innocent women and children," said Qari Hanif Jallundri, a senior official of the main Pakistani organisation overseeing madrasas (Islamic schools).

Jallundri and other clerics will meet Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz on Monday to plead for compromise.

"We want both sides to show flexibility," Jallundri told Reuters. But the time for talking appears just about over.

Troops surrounded Lal Masjid on Tuesday last week after clashes between armed student radicals and paramilitary troops erupted after months of tension.

Feeding fears of a militant backlash, three Chinese workers were shot dead and one wounded in an attack in the northwestern city of Peshawar on Sunday, which authorities said appeared to be a response to the bloody siege in the capital.

The 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.

The government has demanded rebel cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi and his hardcore of fighters surrender or die.

Ghazi has refused, saying he would prefer "martyrdom". He said he and his followers hoped their deaths would spark an Islamic revolution.

"Suicide Vests"

Government and military officials say there are 50 to 60 hard-core militants - some from groups linked to al Qaeda - leading the fighting, and hundreds of women and children in the compound the militants are using as human shields.

Religious Affairs Minister Mohammad Ejaz-ul-Haq told a news conference Lal Masjid's defenders included militants wanted both in Pakistan and abroad, and some believed to be foreign.

The militants have distributed suicide-bomb vests and even shot students trying to flee the mosque, officials say. One official said up to five militants were in command, not Ghazi, who was virtually their hostage too.

But Ghazi, who denies anyone is being used as a human shield, appears as fervent as ever.

"We have firm belief in God that our blood will lead to a revolution," he said in a statement carried by Sunday newspapers.

Ghazi's Taliban-style movement, which mounted an aggressive campaign for the imposition of strict Islamic law beginning in Janaury, is a reflection of the militancy seeping into cities from tribal areas on the Afghan border.

About 1,200 students left the mosque soon after the clashes began but the number leaving has slowed to a trickle.

(Additional reporting by Kamran Haider)

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