SLAMABAD (AFP) – A radical cleric behind an armed uprising at an Islamabad mosque was shot dead Tuesday as Pakistani troops fought day-long gunbattles with his militant followers which left over 60 people dead.
Massive blasts and gunfire rocked the Red Mosque for 16 hours, sending plumes of smoke billowing above the Pakistani capital and raising fears about the fate of scores of women and children inside the complex.
Ambulances raced casualties to hospital as heavily-armed militants, some allegedly linked to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, put up fierce resistance with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades.
The mosque’s firebrand cleric, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, died in a hail of bullets after spending most of the day barricaded in a basement with some children and women while militants sniped at soldiers from the minarets.
“Ghazi was spotted in the basement and asked to come out. He came out with four or five militants who kept on firing at security forces,” interior ministry spokesman Brigadier Javed Cheema told AFP.
“The troops responded and in the crossfire he was killed.”
Cheema said the other militants were also killed with Ghazi. The cleric’s body was lying in the compound while soldiers battled to take control of the sprawling complex’s 75 rooms one at a time.
Ghazi, 43, had previously vowed to die rather than surrender.
President Pervez Musharraf, a key US ally under pressure to curb extremism, authorised the storming of the mosque after talks with Ghazi broke down following a week-long siege which had itself cost 24 lives.
Tensions began early this year when Ghazi’s students launched an anti-vice campaign in a quest to enforce Islamic law. They also kidnapped several people accused of prostitution, including seven Chinese, who were later freed.
As night fell, military spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad told AFP that troops had secured 80 percent of the complex “and the resistance is intense in the remaining area.”
He said around 50 militants and eight soldiers were confirmed dead and at least 15 soldiers were wounded.
Around 60 women and children have so far emerged from the complex since the dawn assault was launched, but many more were still believed to be inside.
“The militants are using women and children as human shields,” he said. “We are trying to move in slowly, keeping in view the constraints under which troops are operating.”
The militants had boobytrapped much of the compound and “have turned the mosque into a trench for them, they have violated the sanctity of the mosque,” Arshad said.
It was not clear how many militants or civilians were still inside.
The government has spoken of 100 militants, and 300 to 400 women and children hostages. Mosque leaders have denied holding civilians as human shields and insisted all those in the compound were there voluntarily.
Fifty militants surrendered after they were given a final chance during a break in the fighting.
The military also said that the wife and daughter of Abdul Aziz, Ghazi’s brother and the official head of the mosque, who was captured trying to flee in a woman’s burqa on Wednesday, were among a group of civilians freed.
“I hope we will be able to save many more lives,” Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao said. He described the mosque as a “fortress where stockpiles of weapons, militants and tunnels were present.”
A man who picked up one of the mobile phones belonging to Ghazi before his death said those inside were under “massive bombing and gunfire. This is indiscriminate killing.”
“There is no contact with each other because no one can leave the rooms and basements. There are dead bodies everywhere,” the witness added, declining to give his name.
In one of his final calls, made to a private television channel shortly after the raid, Ghazi accused the government of being insincere in its efforts to resolve the crisis.
“These people want nothing but genocide,” Ghazi said.
More than 1,200 male and female students fled the mosque earlier in the standoff.
Minutes before the raid, top government negotiator Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, a former Pakistani premier, announced that 11 hours of negotiations with Ghazi had failed.
Religious Affairs Minister Ijaz-ul Haq told AFP the talks broke down because Ghazi demanded safe passage for “foreigners.”
Street battles broke out on July 3 between police and the mosque’s radical students, and it has been under a 24-hour shoot-on-sight curfew ever since.
Officials have said militant commanders are inside, including some from the extremist group Harkatul-Jihad-e-Islami, which has been accused of involvement in the murder of US journalist Daniel Pearl and an attempt to kill Musharraf.
Suspected militants tried to shoot down Musharraf’s plane on Friday in an incident that officials said was in revenge for the mosque siege.