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Pakistani Forces Seek Militant Holdouts In Mosque

The assault was launched after negotiations failed to end the stand-off (AFP) July 10, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Pakistani security forces say 80 percent of Islamabad's Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque complex, has been cleared of militants, but fighting continues to flush out the remaining holdouts.

Pakistani Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that hard-line cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the leader of the militants, had barricaded himself and some supporters in the vast basement of the complex. A military spokesman later confirmed that Ghazi remained inside the mosque.

The security forces launched "Operation Silence" early today after talks broke down, failing to end a weeklong standoff with militants holed up inside the mosque with hostages.

Analyst Farzana Shaikh says the assault on the Red Mosque could have devastating political consequences for President Musharraf within Pakistan.

Around 50 militants and eight security forces have been killed in today's fighting. The military says at least 50 hostages, children and women, have managed to get out of the complex. It is not clear how many hostages remain inside.

Earlier today, Pakistani military spokesman Major General Wahid Arshad said that some militants were captured while trying to flee the morning assault on the complex.

"There are 24 people who were fleeing from the complex who have been captured and are being held by the security forces," Arshad said. "Of the hostages, in the morning there were 20 children who ran away and they are with the security forces. Other than that, there is still an area where, perhaps, there are a lot of women and children because they have yet to be encountered in the earlier operations being carried out since this morning."

Room By Room

As the battle continued into the afternoon, Arshad said up to 50 armed students had surrendered or been arrested. But he said Pakistani troops were facing an "intense engagement" by "well-trained terrorists" who are using machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and hand grenades.

"About three to four terrorists have occupied [the] minarets of the mosque, which they are using as their fighting points," he said. "I had mentioned in the morning that they have turned the mosque into a trench for them, and they are violating the sanctity of the mosque."

Pakistani Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that hard-line cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the leader of the militants, was thought to have fortified himself and some supporters in the vast basement of the complex.

Arshad said that by early afternoon, eight Pakistani soldiers had been killed and 29 wounded. He said that with about 70 percent of the compound under government control, a total of about 50 militants also had been killed.

Meanwhile, security forces continue to conduct a "step-by-step" and "room-by-room" advance into the large basement of the complex.

"It's a huge complex," Arshad said. "It has more than 75 rooms. And that is excluding the basement. And the basement is all over the building. And it is a separate floor in itself which has rooms, which has halls, which has washrooms. So it is a very slow process."

Arshad said security forces are using stun grenades in the basement to assure "minimum collateral damage" after receiving reports that many women and children hostages were still being held underground. He also said militants had rigged some parts of the compound with booby traps.

'A Bastion Against Islamic Extremism'?

Farzana Shaikh, an associate fellow of the Asia Program at the London-based Chatham House, told RFE/RL today that Islamabad's handling of the Red Mosque crisis during the past week has been "incoherent and indecisive" until this morning.

"In the short term, President [Pervez] Musharraf probably expects that his decision to storm the mosque and take decisive action against the militants will win him a reprieve in Western capitals and will buttress his position as the bastion against Islamic extremism in Pakistan -- and, of course, as a reliable ally in the war on terror," Shaikh said.

But Shaikh also says that the assault on the Red Mosque could have devastating political consequences for Musharraf within Pakistan itself.

"There are dangers now that have been unleashed -- not least, of course, the fear that there will be a spin-off from events in Islamabad which will affect the rest of the country, a spin-off which could be violent, involving suicide bombers," she said. "President Musharraf is likely to continue to remain under pressure from opposition political parties who seem now to have gained some momentum and, of course, pressure from the pro-democracy movement."

Abdul Rashid Waziri, an expert on Pakistan at the Regional Studies Center in Kabul, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan today that he sees the Red Mosque crisis as a backlash against Musharraf after years of foreign and domestic policies that have encouraged Islamization.

Musharraf And Religious Parties

Waziri, who formerly served as Afghanistan's frontier minister, says he thinks Musharraf will continue to allow Pakistan's vast network of religious schools, or madrasahs, to operate. But he says the most radical of the country's madrasahs -- those being run by clerics who encourage militancy -- will face closer scrutiny and be forced to adhere to a more moderate curriculum.

"Musharraf plays a different role in front of the world, but his approach toward religious parties is not only soft but also friendly," Waziri said. "Musharraf needs these religious parties to [fight] foreign troops in Afghanistan. And also, Pakistan wants strategic [leverage] inside Afghanistan. Islamization is part of Pakistan's foreign policies and it also is a policy to battle domestic problems. So [religious] schools will remain the same. And [the government] will form a curriculum which will [not harm either side.]"

Attempts by negotiators to broker a nonviolent resolution to the standoff broke down overnight after militants said they would rather by "martyred" than surrender.

Mosque leaders also have denied holding civilians as human shields and insist that all of those in the compound are there voluntarily. But that was not the impression given by at least 60 women and children who had run to safety behind the positions of government troops by mid-afternoon.

(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report from Islamabad, Kabul, and Prague.)

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