Jul 1, 2007
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (Reuters) -- Loud explosions were heard on Thursday from the vicinity of a radical Pakistani mosque being besieged by security forces but the cause was not immediately clear, witnesses said.
About eight explosions were followed by some gunfire but it was not clear if security forces had launched an assault on the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, where hardline religious students are defying a government order to surrender.
The explosions were followed by an announcement broadcast from security force loudspeakers outside the mosque, calling on the students to surrender, a witness said.
"All people in the mosque should surrender or they will be responsible for losses," the witness who lives in the neighborhood cited security forces as saying in the announcement.
Sixteen people have been killed in violence that erupted at the mosque on Tuesday after a months-long stand-off between the authorities and a Taliban-style movement based there.
A senior police official said "activity" in the area had intensified and security forces were taking "necessary action". He did not elaborate.
Hundreds of police and soldiers, backed by armoured personnel carriers and with orders to shoot armed resisters on sight, sealed off the mosque and imposed an indefinite curfew in the neighbourhood after Tuesday's clashes.
The arrest Wednesday of Abdul Aziz, chief cleric of Islamabad's Red Mosque, was a major coup for the government.
But two earlier bomb attacks on security forces in another part of the country that killed 12 people raised fears militant supporters of the mosque were hitting back.
Nearly 700 radical Muslim students based at the besieged mosque surrendered on Wednesday, a day after bloody clashes outside the mosque. Aziz tried to slip out among women from a mosque school, who all wear black, all-enveloping burqas.
"He was trying to escape wearing a burqa. He was caught at the checkpoint where women leaving the mosque have to register, as some policemen found his appearance suspicious," said deputy city administrator Chaudhry Mohammad Ali.
Aziz runs the mosque with his brother, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who was believed to be still inside, along with many militant supporters who were defying government ultimatums to surrender.
Hundreds of police and soldiers, backed by armored personnel carriers and with orders to shoot armed resisters on sight, sealed off the mosque and imposed an indefinite curfew in the neighborhood after Tuesday's clashes.
Sixteen people have been killed in the violence that erupted after a months-long stand-off between the authorities and a Taliban-style movement based at Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, less than two kilometers (a mile) from parliament and the capital's diplomatic enclave.
Some clerics tried mediating to end the standoff but the government said earlier it would not negotiate with the cleric brothers.
"They have no option but to surrender," Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema told reporters.
Liberal politicians have for months pressed President Pervez Musharraf to crack down on the clerics, who had threatened suicide attacks if force was used against them.
No one knew how many students remained in the mosque, with officials giving estimates from several hundred up to 5,000.
Information Minister Mohammad Ali Durrani said authorities were forced to act because of pressure from the media and the international community.
He said more people had left the mosque than expected and authorities let several surrender deadlines pass.
But a small hard core, drawn from militant groups with links to Taliban supporters on the Afghan border, was unlikely to give up, a security official said.
There was no major firing on Wednesday but security forces fired teargas into the compound in the afternoon and some shots were fired from the mosque. Anti-terrorism police moved into the area as darkness fell and several helicopters flew overhead.
A suicide bomber killed six soldiers and two children in North West Frontier Province and a roadside bomb aimed at police killed four civilians in another part of the province.
Police chief Sharif Virk said no one had claimed responsibility for the attack on his men but a cleric, Fazalullah, with links to the Islamabad mosque, was active in the region.
"Fazalullah has known links with Lal Masjid," Virk said.
The Lal Masjid movement is part of a phenomenon known as "Talibanization", or the seeping of militancy from remote tribal regions on the Afghan border into central areas.
The students affiliated with the mosque range in age from teenagers to people in their 30s, most from conservative areas near the Afghan border.
The mosque has a long history of support for militancy, but the latest trouble began in January when students occupied a library to protest against the destruction of illegally built mosques. They later kidnapped women they said were involved in prostitution and abducted police