Deaths mount as Pakistani troops enter mosque


Jul 10, 2007

(CNN) -- Eight Pakistan commandos and 50 student militants were killed as Pakistani security forces stormed the compound of a controversial mosque Tuesday morning, minutes after negotiations fell through between the government and radical Islamic students inside, military sources said.

Fifteen commandos and 20 militants have been wounded, the military said. Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad told CNN that 50 militants had surrendered by late morning.

Heavy black smoke rose above the mosque as the morning -- and the fighting -- wore on in the Pakistani capital.

Dozens of ambulances parked near the site, waiting for the area to be safe enough to enter.

As fighting started, 20 children escaped from the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, a Pakistani army spokesman said. Pakistan Rangers, a paramilitary organization, secured the children, the spokesman said.

The week-long standoff between Pakistani security forces and the students has left more than two dozen people dead.

Pakistani Information Minister Tariq Azim Khan told CNN that there were 300 hostages inside the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, and the government hoped to get them out safely.
"We have tried our very best to settle this matter amicably," he said. "... We have no choice but to use force, which we always maintained as a last option."

Khan said that between 40 and 60 "hardcore militants" were inside.

"Hopefully this operation can be concluded pretty shortly," he said. "We will try to keep casualties at a minimum."

Tensions had been simmering for months between police and the students at mosque, who are blamed for a string of recent kidnappings of civilians, Chinese nationals and Pakistani police.

The government has been investigating the activities of the mosque, whose students who are demanding that Taliban ( rule be imposed in the city.

Gunfire erupted moments after an announcement from the government's chief negotiator, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, that negotiations to end the standoff had failed. As dawn broke over the Pakistani capital, smoke rose from the site of the mosque.

"After 11 hours of negotiations, we are deeply disappointed that the talks did not succeed," Hussain said.

Hussain said that Abdul Rashid Ghazi -- the cleric leading the stand-off inside -- said "no" to every offer from the government.

Tensions escalated Sunday when Pakistani army commander Lt. Col. Haroon-ul-Islam was shot and killed during an effort to free women and children inside the mosque by blasting holes in the perimeter walls. Three other officers were wounded.

At least 27 deaths have resulted thus far. Two of those deaths include students who tried to surrender Friday but were shot dead by other students, intelligence sources said. The sources gave no additional details of how the shootings occurred.

Ghazi claimed more than 300 people have been killed since Tuesday, but an interior ministry spokesman said the ministry completely rejects that claim.

The violence began Tuesday when about 150 militant Islamic ( students attacked a police checkpoint close to the mosque. Street clashes quickly erupted, with police firing tear gas at the students and the students fighting back with guns and sticks. They then took refuge in the mosque and an adjoining women's seminary, which the troops subsequently surrounded.

More than 1,200 people, mainly students from the mosque's two Islamic schools, have already fled the compound, but officials don't know exactly how many remain.

Ghazi has said there are 1,900 still in the compound. Meanwhile his brother, Maulana Abdul Aziz, said there are only about 850 inside. Other intelligence sources have told CNN that there are about 800 to 900.

Aziz, the top cleric at the Red Mosque, was captured Wednesday while trying to slip out of the mosque disguised in a burqa -- the head-to-toe covering worn by some Muslim women.

At least 50 of those still inside are well-armed hard-liners, Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao said Friday.

Although conditions inside the mosque are unknown, friends and relatives outside the mosque are worried for their loved ones.

"I ask these people to leave my son. We are even ready to pay. My son! My son!" said Mozamil Shah, the father of one young boy still holed up inside the mosque.

In efforts to oust the group, officials have cut off water, gas and electricity to the compound. Officials also disconnected 12 telephones Sunday, but an Interior Ministry official told CNN they had no way of shutting down cell phone service from within the mosque.