Pakistan clerics in last-ditch peace bid
Pakistani Muslim clerics said on Monday they were making a last-ditch bid to avert an assault on militants holed up in a mosque after authorities issued what they said was a last warning for them to surrender.
Troops have surrounded the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, in Islamabad since Tuesday when clashes between armed student radicals and government forces erupted after months of tension.
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The death toll in the Islamabad violence rose to at least 21 on Sunday when an officer was killed as he led a commando raid to blow up the walls of a girls' religious school, or madrasa, in the mosque compound.
"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.
He was referring to the hundreds for the women and children inside the compound, whom the government says are being held hostage as human shields.
Jallundri and other clerics will meet Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz on Monday to plead for compromise.
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 that 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.
"We want both sides to show flexibility," Jallundri told Reuters. But the time for talking appears just about over.
Authorities outside the mosque compound blared out over loudspeakers what they said was a final warning on Sunday evening, fueling speculation an assault was imminent.
Security forces say they have held back from mounting a full-scale assault because of fears for the women and children inside. Troops have instead been blasting holes in the walls to provide escape routes for them to get out.
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.
Ghazi says he has nearly 2,000 followers with him but no militants. The minister put the number of students at 200 to 500.
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 January, 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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