ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistani authorities issued a “last warning” on Sunday to a rebel Islamist cleric and his fighters holed up in an Islamabad mosque, as speculation mounted security forces would launch a full-scale assault.
Troops have surrounded the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, in Islamabad since Tuesday when clashes between armed student radicals and government forces erupted after months of tension.
The death toll from the conflict rose to at least 21 on Sunday when an officer was killed as he led commandos in a raid to blow up the walls of a girls’ religious school, or madrasa, in the mosque compound, to help women and children get out.
“This is the last warning for you to surrender,” authorities said over loudspeakers outside the mosque, a resident who heard the announcement said.
President Pervez Musharraf on Saturday gave the militants a “surrender-or-die” ultimatum. He met top security officials on Sunday evening.
“The final round has begun. There’s a possibility,” a government official said when asked if an assault was imminent.
Rebel cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi has refused to surrender, saying he and his followers prefer “martyrdom”. In a statement carried by Sunday newspapers the cleric said he and his followers hoped their deaths would spark a revolution.
“We have firm belief in God that our blood will lead to a revolution,” wrote Ghazi.
Government and military officials say the cleric has 50 to 60 hard-core militants — some from groups linked to al Qaeda — leading the fighting, and hundreds of women and children he is using as human shields.
Ghazi denies anyone is being used as a human shield. Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Sherpao said militants shot and wounded three students trying to get away on Sunday. Occasional gunfire rang out during the day.
Ghazi’s Taliban-style movement reflects the militancy seeping into cities from tribal areas on the Afghan border.
Religious Affairs Minister Mohammad Ejaz-ul-Haq told a news conference Lal Masjid’s defenders included militants wanted both in Pakistan and abroad. Some foreign militants were suspected of being inside, he said.
Ghazi says he has nearly 2,000 followers, but no militants, with him. The minister put the number at 200 to 500.
Lal Masjid has been a hotbed of militancy for years, known for its support for Afghanistan’s Taliban and opposition to Musharraf’s backing for the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism.
Security forces say they have refrained from mounting a full-scale assault because of fears for the women and children inside. Instead, troops have been blasting holes in the walls to provide escape routes for the women and children.
About 1,200 students left the mosque after the clashes began but the number leaving has slowed to a trickle. Interior Minister Sherpao said five children got away on Sunday.
Many Pakistanis support the action against the hardliners whose behavior, including a vigilante campaign against perceived vice, has raised concern about the spread of militant Islam.
The action against the mosque has raised fears of a backlash by its militant allies. A policeman was killed in a blast in the northwest on Sunday. It was the fourth blast since the fighting at the mosque began. Nineteen people have been killed.
Three Chinese workers were killed in what the government described as a terrorist attack in the northwestern city of Peshawar. Police said it was too early to say if the attack was linked to Lal Masjid.
Additional reporting by Faisal Aziz, Zeeshan Haider, Augustine Anthony