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Pakistani troops battle last Red Mosque militants

PAKISTAN: Pakistani troops Wednesday battled to flush out militants making a last stand inside Islamabad’s Red Mosque after fighting that left at least 62 people dead, amid fears the toll could rise dramatically.

Heavy blasts and gunfire rocked the sprawling complex in central Islamabad for a second day as soldiers moved to clear the residence of firebrand cleric and militant leader Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who was shot dead Tuesday night.

The army said the operation was in its final phase. But there was still no word on what has happened to most of the hundreds of women and children whom the government said were being held inside as human shields.

Soldiers killed three more militants overnight. The rebels, some allegedly linked to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, are using rocket-propelled grenaeds and machine guns against the security forces and even firing from the minarets.

“The final stage is underway in which the residential complex of Ghazi and his associates was to be cleared,” chief military spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad said.

President Pervez Musharraf ordered the assault after talks with Ghazi to end an eight-day siege at the complex, which itself left 24 people dead, collapsed. However the army has been surprised by the level of resistance.

In previous months Ghazi and his burqa-wielding female students from a girls’ madrassa attached to the mosque had led a campaign involving kidnappings to bring Taliban-style Islamic laws to the leafy capital.

After the militants had been cleared from the mosque, troops would sweep the booby-trapped complex “to ensure that there is no grenade, mines or other such things which could harm the people coming to work there,” he added.

The final death toll would not be available until the complex, which includes a warren of rooms inside a multi-storey girls’ madrassa, had been cleared, he said.

“There are still bodies lying there,” Arshad said.

Arshad said at least 53 militants were killed while a soldier died overnight from injuries, taking the army toll to nine.

Newspaper reports quoting officials said the likely total was anywhere between 80 and 200 dead, although there was no official confirmation.

Around 60 women and children have emerged from the complex since the assault was launched at dawn on Tuesday, but many more are believed to be inside. The government has previously said 300-400 were in the compound.

The government said the death of Abdul Rashid Ghazi was a major setback to the rebels, some allegedly linked to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, who fought with rocket-propelled grenades and sniped at soldiers from the minarets.

The cleric died “in a hail of bullets” after troops spotted him in the basement where he spent most of the day barricaded with some children and women, interior ministry spokesman Brigadier Javed Cheema said.

“Ghazi came out with four or five militants who kept on firing at security forces. The troops responded and in the crossfire he was killed,” Cheema told AFP.

“It is a big blow to the extremist element in the country and a lesson for others.” Cheema said the other militants were also killed with Ghazi. The cleric’s body was lying in the compound while soldiers battled to take control of the sprawling complex’s 75 rooms one at a time.

Ghazi, 43, the public face of the mosque and its deputy leader, had previously vowed to die rather than surrender.

He also said he hoped his death would spark an Islamic revolution in Pakistan.

The mosque uprising in the heart of the capital, close to foreign embassies, has posed an unprecedented challenge to the rule of military ruler Musharraf, a key ally in the US-led “war on terror”.

The US State Department praised Pakistan’s “responsible” decision to storm the mosque, saying the militants had ample time to surrender, while President George W. Bush hailed Musharraf as a strong ally.

Analysts have warned there could be a backlash after the bloody ending of the siege. Over 20,000 tribesmen in northeast Pakistan rallied earlier in the week to call for a holy war against Musharraf, who has already survived at least three assassination attempts by militants linked to Al-Qaeda.

There have also been several attacks on security forces and aid workers in parts of northwestern Pakistan that have close links to the Red Mosque.

Islamabad, Wednesday, AFP

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