No let up in Pak's Lal Masjid standoff
Intense exchanges of gunfire between Pakistani security forces and militants holed up inside the besieged Lal Masjid continued for the sixth day Sunday amid contradictory claims of casualties in clashes from officials and the mosque clerics.
Troops have surrounded the mosque since Tuesday when clashes erupted between them and armed religious students, many of them trained by the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
The security forces launched yet another operation on Saturday night, which witnessed heavy firing, after President Pervez Musharraf asked the militants to "surrender or get killed".
"They should not prolong, they should surrender and hand over their weapons, otherwise they risk being killed," he said.
"The government has enough power and no one can stand before its might," he said, "Our concern is for children and women and we are showing lot of patience and restraint."
A Pakistani army officer who led the overnight operation was among the dead. Colonel Haroon Islam died in a hospital in Rawalpindi, some 30 km from here, after being shot by militants, an army spokesperson said Sunday.
The spokesperson added that two security men were also injured Saturday when two unidentified men fired at them outside the Lal Masjid, Xinhua reported.
Earlier Information Minister Tariq Azeem said the death toll in the clashes between radical students and security forces has risen to 24.
It is difficult to verify the casualties inside the mosque, Azeem said, adding that the government's policy remains unchanged and use of force is still the last option.
On the other hand, the besieged clerics told the media that the army bombings had killed at least 335 students on Saturday night.
At least 310 female and 25 male students were killed in the bombings of the compound of the mosque in the overnight operation, said Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the deputy chief cleric of the controversial mosque.
Ghazi, who is leading the resistance in the mosque, said he had stocks of weapons enough to keep fighting the security forces for one month.
Pakistan, however, denied Gazi's casualty claim saying the security forces were trying best to minimize human losses in the operation and never used heavy weapons against militants in the Lal Masjid.
The information minister said it was difficult to verify the casualties inside the mosque, adding the government's policy remained unchanged and the use of force was still the last option.
Interior ministry spokesman Brigadier Javed Iqbal Cheema stressed that the bombings carried out by security forces on Saturday night were aimed only at breaching sections of the walls on the mosque compound to let hundreds of women and children taken hostages escape.
There are still more than 1,000 men and women students inside the mosque in the heart of the city, Umm-e-Hassan, the principal of Jamia Hafsa the seminary for girls and wife of Lal Masjid chief Maulana Abdul Aziz, was quoted as saying.
Meanwhile, DPA reported that Abdul Rashid Ghazi had agreed to face the charges against him in court provided the government delayed military action for three weeks.
"The security operation should be delayed for three weeks, and if there are any charges against me they should be decided in the court during this period," he was quoted by the Geo news channel Saturday as telling the president of ruling Pakistan Muslim League party Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain over the phone.