Lal Masjid stand-off enters seventh day
9 Jul 2007
ISLAMABAD: Uncertainty prevailed early Monday in Pakistan as hardline militants remained holed up for a seventh consecutive day in a besieged mosque.
Efforts to seek a negotiated solution continued, even as reports overnight of security forces shouting a "last warning" for the militants to surrender conflicted with official explanations that no time limit had been set for a final assault.
Pakistani security forces gave a last warning for surrender on megaphones late on Sunday, raising fears that the Red Mosque in Islamabad was about to be stormed.
An hour later, military spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad said, "I came to know about the possibility for an operation tonight only through media."
Intelligence officials scuffled with media people, who were forced to vacate their coverage at the local press club, 500 metres from the scene, in a move that further reinforced the impression that the final round of the conflict was approaching.
Parallel to these developments, meetings continued late Sunday between mediators, mainly religious scholars, and members of the government, concluding with a vow for more talks on Monday to find a solution that could avoid more bloodshed.
A delegation of Wafaq-ul-Madaras - an organization overseeing thousands of Islamic seminaries in the country - urged the president of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League party, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussein, to encourage flexibility by the government.
Shujaat conveyed the message to President Pervez Musharraf, who, Geo news channel said, summoned a high-level meeting Monday to further deliberate the issue.
The body of religious scholars, who had already condemned the activities of the Red Mosque militants, warned the government that the siege could lead to civil war.
"The overnight bombardment by the security forces was sheer brutality," a spokesman for the organization, Mufti Rafi Usmani, told Geo after the meeting.
The clashes began last Tuesday when students from the Red Mosque attacked a police checkpoint, the most recent aggressive act in their campaign over the last five months for enforcement in Pakistan of strict, Taliban-style religious morality codes.
Under the drive, several women, including seven Chinese from a massage parlour, were abducted for alleged involvement in prostitution.
The clash between the militants and troops deployed around the mosque escalated into running battles that left dozens dead.
Militant cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi claimed that a fresh raid early Sunday killed over 300 of his followers including women.
A senior commando officer Lieutenant Colonel Haroon-ul-Islam also died in action. The militants holed up in the complex for the last six days opened indiscriminate fire on the elite attacking unit, killing its commander, Pakistani military's chief spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad said.
None of the claims could be verified.
Security officials leaked dozens of stories to the media, claiming that terrorists, whether wanted in the murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl or in failed plots to assassinate Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, were all assembled in the mosque.
Some media outlets reported that the militants were in possession of 12 suicide jackets that, if detonated, could slaughter innocents being held by the militants in the mosque.
The competing claims and allegations have made it difficult for journalists to distinguish between facts and propaganda.
"None of us have any idea what is happening on the scene, since we are not there. We rather convey to the public what the two sides claim," Islamabad Journalist Association President Mushtaq Minhas said.
Ghazi has remained defiant.
"We have firm belief in God that our blood will lead to a revolution in the country," he said, apparently hoping that other militant elements in Pakistan would follow his example.
There were some signs of wider unrest, as a pro-Taliban cleric with thousands of followers warned the government that suicide attacks would be triggered across the country if the military operation against the besieged mosque was not halted.
"The Lal Masjid issue, if not resolved right now, will set off an unstoppable series of suicide attacks and bombings across the country," Maulana Sami ul Haq told a Defence of Islam convention in the central Pakistani city of Lahore.
He runs several Islamic seminaries in the country's North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), including Dar-ul-Uloom Haqania, which is considered a place of origin of the Afghan Taliban movement.
In an attack apparently carried out by supporters of Islamic militants at the besieged mosque, three Chinese nationals were slain Sunday night in NWFP, raising fears that the conflict could spill over to other parts of Pakistan.
One Chinese was wounded as unknown gunmen opened fire on the Chinese in the suburb of the provincial capital city of Peshawar, an official said on condition of anonymity.
"It would be premature to link the killings with the Red Mosque issue," said the official, who did not rule out a possible connection.
In recent days, some militant sympathizers have attacked security forces in the Swat district of NWFP, killing or wounding several security personnel in NWFP including four soldiers.