Pakistan counts costs of bloody end to mosque siege

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan counted the human and political cost on Wednesday of an armed assault that killed a rebel cleric and at least 50 Islamist fighters and eight soldiers at an Islamabad mosque after a week-long siege.

But the big question left hanging was whether any women or children said to have been at the mosque had been killed.

The final toll was still unknown as mopping up operations at the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, went late into the night.

The occasional explosion -- possibly from a stun grenade -- was heard after midnight as troops swept the last few rooms in the mosque-school complex, looking for any enemy who might have survived Tuesday’s onslaught.

A military spokesman said there were certainly more than 50 militants killed, but how many more he couldn’t say.

“When the operation is finished we’ll start picking up bodies,” spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad said late on Tuesday. He was more sure of casualties on the government side.

Eight soldiers were killed and 29 wounded in “Operation Silence”, the codename for the final assault that raged from before dawn to after dusk.

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High numbers would be very bad for President Pervez Musharraf, who is going through the arguably the worst patch of a roller-coaster eight years in power.

Elections are due later this year and the general, who came to power in a 1999 coup, is seeking a second five-year term.

Government spokesmen had no information on casualties among women or children, although before and during the assault they had accused the militants of stopping children, in particular from leaving, in order to use them as human shields.

They said that around 30 children and 27 women had managed to get out during the assault. But talks between the government and militants suggested that hundreds were inside.

Some of those women were among the most fervent supporters of the Taliban-style movement led by Lal Masid’s two cleric brothers, Abdul Aziz and Abdul Rashid Ghazi.

Aziz was caught escaping a week ago, disguised in a woman’s all-enveloping black burqa, but his younger brother died in a hail of bullets, along with hard core militants he had surrounded himself with, in a last stand on Tuesday night.

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The clerics had sought to impose strict Islamic law in the capital and incited followers, mostly drawn from restive North West Frontier Province, to run a vigilante anti-vice campaign.

Hordes of burqa clad stave-wielding girls had become a symbol of movement’s challenge to the state.

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Pakistan’s liberals berated Musharraf for not clamping down sooner on the religious students kidnapping women they accused of being prostitutes, intimidating owners of video shops and abducting policemen.

Last month, they briefly kidnapped women from China, Pakistan’s most reliable ally. Paramilitary troops were deployed close to Lal Masjid, and on July 3 clashes erupted.

During the ensuing siege at least 21 people died, but that number could well be more, and then came Tuesday’s bloodbath.

Self-exiled former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who in the run up to elections has been linked to a possible power sharing deal with Musharraf, backed the government’s action.

“I had been a critic of the Musharraf regime, but I do think they ultimately did something right in confronting the militants,” Bhutto said in comments to a Western news channel.

“We cannot keep on appeasing the militants.”

Bhutto also predicted a backlash from religious conservatives, and a series of bomb blasts targeting security forces in the past week suggested that was already underway.

About 300 protesters angry about the assault torched tented offices of Western aid agencies in Battagram, a town in North West Frontier Province damaged by a 2005 earthquake.