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Pakistani forces secure rebel mosque complex

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistani security forces secured a mosque and school complex in Islamabad on Wednesday, snuffing out the last pockets of resistance a day after an assault that killed a rebel cleric and more than 70 supporters.

Many questions were unanswered including the final death toll and whether any women or children had been killed at the radical Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque.

Heavy casualties, especially among women and children who were religious students based at the compound would be bad for U.S.-ally President Pervez Musharraf in the run-up to elections due late this year, when he will seek a second five-year term.

Al Qaeda’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri, in an Internet video, called for revenge over the assault.

“If you do not retaliate ... Musharraf will not spare you.”

Soldiers finished securing a headquarters and residential complex where hardline cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi lived. No militants, or other followers of Ghazi, were left inside, said military spokesman Major-General Waheed Arshad.

“The first phase is over ... the special services troops given the task of flushing out the militants and taking out the civilians, that is over,” Arshad said.

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Ghazi died in a hail of bullets on Tuesday. His body was being taken for burial in his home village in Punjab province, an Interior Ministry official said.

Three militants were killed overnight and several militants and soldiers were wounded in a morning clash. A wounded man was found in a basement bathroom in the evening, Arshad said.

Occasional explosions rang out from the fortified mosque-school complex as troops destroyed booby-traps and mines.

Nine members of the security forces were killed and 29 wounded in “Operation Silence”, the codename for the assault carried out by 164 commandos.

Heavy security was still in place around the compound with reporters kept back. But a curfew in the neighborhood for more than a week was lifted for a few hours in the afternoon.

Musharraf is expected to address the nation this week.

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After the complex was secured, soldiers began to comb the debris and Arshad said they had found 73 bodies. The military had earlier estimated more than 50 militants had been killed.

Asked if any women or children were among the dead, he said nine of the bodies had been burned beyond recognition. Earlier, he said he had no reports of women or children killed.

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The search was going on, he said.

No one knew how many people were in the complex when the assault began. More than 1,200 people left during a week-long standoff after clashes erupted on July 3.

Estimates from officials on the number remaining had ranged from hundreds to 2,000. Arshad said the military, before the assault, had estimated 200 to 300 people were in the complex.

He said 87 people came out after the assault began, including women, children and militants. Young women were among the most fervent supporters of the Taliban-style movement led by Lal Masjid’s two cleric brothers, Ghazi and Abdul Aziz.

Aziz was caught escaping last week disguised in a woman’s burqa. He was due to accompany his brother’s body to their village for the funeral.

The clerics had sought to impose strict Islamic law in the capital and incited followers to run a vigilante anti-vice campaign.

Many Pakistanis berated Musharraf for not clamping down sooner on the students who abducted policemen and kidnapped women they accused of being prostitutes.

Self-exiled former prime minister Benazir Bhutto backed the government assault and newspapers were also supportive.

Additional reporting by Augustine Anthony, Faisal Aziz and Zeeshan Haider