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Pak counts costs of bloody end to siege

But the big question left hanging is whether any women or children have been killed in the Lal Masjid.
Reuters | By Simon Cameron-Moore, Islamabad
UPDATED ON JUL 11, 2007 01:54 PM IST

Pakistan counted the human and political cost on Wednesday of an armed assault that killed a rebel cleric and at least 50 Islamist fighters and eight soldiers at an Islamabad mosque after a week-long siege.

But the big question left hanging was whether any women or children said to have been at the mosque had been killed.

The final toll was still unknown as mopping up operations at the Lal Masjid went on.

An occasional explosion rang out through the night from the mosque-school complex and several were heard shortly after dawn.

The cause of the blasts was not clear and military officials were not available for comment. Heavy security was still in place around the compound with reporters not allowed to approach and a curfew in the neighbourhood.

A military spokesman said earlier there were certainly more than 50 militants killed. "When the operation is finished we'll start picking up bodies," spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad said late on Tuesday. He was more sure of casualties on the government side.

Eight soldiers were killed and 29 wounded in "Operation Silence", the codename for the final assault that raged from before dawn to after dusk.

High numbers of casualties, especially among women and children religious students based at the compound would be very bad for President Pervez Musharraf, who is going through arguably the worst patch of a roller-coaster eight years in power.

Elections are due later this year and the general, who came to power in a 1999 coup, is seeking a second five-year term.

Government spokesmen had no information on casualties among women or children, although before and during the assault they had accused the militants of stopping them from leaving, in order to use them as human shields.

They said about 30 children and 27 women had managed to get out during the assault. But government officials earlier suggested hundreds had been inside.

Some of women were among the most fervent supporters of the Taliban-style movement led by Lal Masjid's two cleric brothers, Abdul Aziz and Abdul Rashid Ghazi.

Aziz was caught escaping a week ago, disguised in a woman's all-enveloping black burqa, but his younger brother died in a hail of bullets, along with hard core militants he had surrounded himself with, in a last stand on Tuesday night. "Cannot appease militants"

The clerics had sought to impose strict Islamic law in the capital and incited followers, most drawn from restive North West Frontier Province, to run a vigilante anti-vice campaign.

Gangs of burqa-clad, stave-wielding young women had become a symbol of the movement's challenge to the state.

Pakistan's liberals berated Musharraf for not clamping down sooner on the religious students who kidnapped women they accused of being prostitutes, intimidated owners of video shops and abducted policemen.

Last month, they briefly kidnapped women from China, Pakistan's most reliable ally. Paramilitary troops were deployed to set up security posts close to the compound and on July 3 clashes erupted.

During the ensuing siege at least 21 people died, but that number could well be more, and then came Tuesday's bloodbath.

Self-exiled former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who in the run up to elections has been linked to a possible power sharing deal with Musharraf, backed the government's action.

"I had been a critic of the Musharraf regime, but I do think they ultimately did something right in confronting the militants," Bhutto told a Western news channel.

"We cannot keep on appeasing the militants."

Bhutto also predicted a backlash from religious conservatives, and a series of bomb blasts targeting security forces in the past week suggested that was underway.

About 300 protesters angry about the assault on Tuesday torched tented offices of Western aid agencies in Battagram, a northwest town damaged by a 2005 earthquake.

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