Shooting at Red Mosque foils Islamist mediators
Explosions and heavy gunfire stopped Islamist politicians from entering a besieged Islamabad mosque on Saturday, on a mission to persuade a radical cleric to send out children among his hundreds of militant followers.
The five-member delegation of religious conservatives blamed security forces for opening fire, when the cleric had already given them an all-clear to enter the Red Mosque, or Lal Masjid.
Hundreds of troops have besieged the fortified compound housing the mosque and a girls' madrasa since Tuesday when months of tension erupted into clashes.
There were unconfirmed accounts of the mosque's defenders burying more bodies on Saturday, but so far the death toll is 20.
"Security forces are not allowing us to go in and they have opened fire," said member of parliament Samia Raheel Qazi.
"Whatever happens now, the government will be responsible."
Mosque cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the leader of a Taliban-style movement, has declared he would choose "martyrdom" rather than agree to unconditional surrender, and has rejected government accusations that he is holding women and children as human shields.
In another development, soldiers were deployed in many places, replacing paramilitary troops who have been at the forefront of the siege.
Ghazi said he and the followers would lay down their weapons but would never accept arrest. "I fully stand by my position, there's no question of arrests," Ghazi told Reuters early on Saturday, speaking over the crack of rifle fire.
He said three students were killed on Friday.
Smoke and the orange glow of fire rose from the mosque early on Saturday during a heavy exchange of fire. One member of the security forces was killed, said witnesses who saw the body, although authorities denied any casualties.
Water, gas and power to the mosque have been cut and food was said to be getting scarce.
About 1,200 students left the mosque after the clashes began but only a trickle of about 20 came out on Friday, among them a boy who said older students were forcing young ones to stay.
Officials say they don't know how many are left in there, though they put the number of hard-core militants at 50 to 60, while Ghazi has said there are 1,900 students in the compound, and his elder brother, who was captured trying to escape in a burqa in Wednesday, put the number at 850, including 600 females.
Authorities say they have blasted holes in the compound's walls to enable people to flee. Security forces have also occupied another city madrasa affiliated with the Lal Masjid.
Tensions began rising in January when students launched an anti-vice campaign to impose strict Islamic law.
They kidnapped people they accused of prostitution, intimidated shopkeepers selling Western videos, abducted police and threatened suicide attacks if they were suppressed.
Moderate politicians and the media had urged President Pervez Musharraf to crack down on the Red Mosque radicals far earlier, and despite the bloodshed newspaper editorials have shown broad support for the decision to finally use force.
The Red Mosque movement is symptomatic of the religious extremism seeping into Pakistani cities from tribal border areas.
Musharraf has not commented publicly on the siege but has urged security agencies to allow time to get children out.
On Friday, gunmen fired from a roof-top under the flight path of Islamabad's military airport as Musharraf was flying off to inspect flood damage in the south.
An intelligence officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the shots were an attempt on the president's life.
The government refused to jump to such conclusions. But, officials privately say the shooter clearly meant to target Musharraf's aircraft, and while the attack appeared amateurish the worrying aspect was that the would-be assassins knew the president was flying that morning.
US ally Musharraf survived two assassination attempts by Al-Qaeda-linked militants in 2003.
Adding to a sense of foreboding over risks posed by militants to stability in nuclear-armed Pakistan, a suicide bomber killed six soldiers on Friday in a northwestern region, taking the toll from bomb attacks to 18 people, mostly soldiers, since Wednesday.
(Additional reporting by Faisal Aziz, Augustine Anthony, Zeeshan Haider)