ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Heavy gunfire and explosions rocked Islamabad early on Saturday as Islamist students holed up in a mosque battled Pakistani security forces after the militants’ leader defied government demands to surrender.
The fortified Lal Masjid or Red Mosque compound has been under siege by hundreds of troops and police since Tuesday when months of tensions boiled over into clashes between Muslim clerics and religious students and security forces. At least 19 people have been killed.
“We can die but we will not surrender. We’re not terrorists,” said Abdul Rashid Ghazi, chief cleric leading the militants told Reuters early on Saturday, speaking over the crack of rifle fire.
Smoke and the orange glow of fire rose from the mosque early on Saturday as heavy gunfire and explosions rocked the city. It was not immediately clear what was burning.
Water, gas and power to the mosque have been cut and food was said to be getting scarce.
Tension between authorities and religious leaders at the mosque had been rising since January when students, most of whom in their 20s and 30s, launched a campaign to press for action against what they see as vice.
They kidnapped people they accused of involvement in prostitution, intimidated shopkeepers selling Western videos and abducted policemen and threatened to unleash suicide bombers if they were suppressed.
Moderate politicians and the media had urged President Pervez Musharraf to intervene to end the standoff. Musharraf has not commented publicly on the siege but has urged security agencies to allow time for parents to take children out of a madrasa, or school, in the compound.
On Friday, gunmen fired from a roof-top under the flight path from Islamabad’s military airport as Musharraf was flying off to inspect flood damage in the south.
An intelligence officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the shots were an unsuccessful attempt on the president’s life. But the government said there appeared to be no link between the shooting and Musharraf’s flight.
U.S. ally Musharraf survived two assassination attempts by al Qaeda-linked militants in 2003.
Adding to a sense of foreboding over risks posed to stability by militants in nuclear-armed Pakistan, a suicide bomber killed six soldiers on Friday in a northwest region where the Islamists in the mosque have allies.
Many Pakistanis welcomed the government’s move against a movement reminiscent of the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan, and symptomatic of the religious extremism seeping into cities from tribal border areas.
Interior Ministry Secretary Syed Kamal Shah appealed to Ghazi to give up and said he would be treated humanely.
“There are many precious lives in his hands ... he should show courage and come out,” Shah said. “If he is concerned about his safety, we are ready to give any guarantees.”
But Ghazi said he and the followers were willing to lay down guns but would never accept arrest: “That’s final, I can’t change it.”
He also said three student were killed on Friday but a paramilitary force commander denied that.
About 1,200 students have left the mosque since Tuesday but only a trickle of about 20 came out on Friday. Most were whisked away but one boy said older students were forcing younger ones to stay.
Food was running out and the stench from dead bodies hung in the air, Ashraf Swati, 15, told Reuters.
Authorities say they have blasted holes in the compound’s walls to enable people to flee.
Ghazi rejected accusations he was keeping women and children as human shields.
Ghazi’s elder brother and chief cleric, Abdul Aziz, was caught on Wednesday trying to flee disguised in a burqa. He later called on followers to give up. Aziz said there were 850 students inside, Ghazi said 1,900.
Additional reporting by Faisal Aziz, Augustine Anthony, Zeeshan Haider