By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 8, 2007
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, July 8 -- Positions hardened in the standoff at the pro-Taliban Red Mosque on Saturday, as a peace effort collapsed amid a hail of gunfire and President Pervez Musharraf called on Islamic radicals hunkered down inside to surrender or face death.
The siege entered its fifth day Saturday, and there was no resolution in sight. Heavy exchanges of gunfire continued throughout the day, and the radicals appeared determined to continue fighting rather than lay down their weapons. The government, meanwhile, has refused to negotiate and has said it will accept nothing less than unconditional surrender.
"If they don't surrender, I'm saying it here, they will be killed," Musharraf told reporters in his first public comments on the siege.
Musharraf, who also is head of the army, said he believed the government had "shown great patience because we don't want people to be killed. We could have done everything. The government has the power, but there are women and children."
Abdul Rashid Ghazi, 43, a cleric who took over leadership of the mosque after the arrest of his brother earlier in the week, has said he and his followers want to be martyred. "I prefer to fight and prefer death instead of surrendering," Ghazi said in an interview with the BBC. "Islamabad will become like Baghdad if the government commits aggression against the Red Mosque and kills me."
In a separate interview with a local television station, Ghazi said more than 70 of his followers had already been killed, an assertion that could not be independently confirmed.
Early Sunday morning, the army said that a senior commando had been killed and another officer injured during intense fighting overnight. The commandos had been blasting holes in the perimeter wall to the compound to allow women and children inside a chance to escape.
The mosque is surrounded by several thousand heavily armed government commandos and rangers. The siege began Tuesday, after a vicious gun battle that left 19 people dead. Clerics at the Red Mosque, in a residential neighborhood in the heart of the normally tranquil capital, had been provoking the government for months with operations aimed at stamping out vice. Students from a madrassa, or religious school, affiliated with the mosque abducted police officers and alleged prostitutes, and they threatened music store owners with attacks.
The mosque standoff comes as Pakistan faces a growing threat from religious extremists, who have been moving eastward from the Afghan border in recent years.
Only several dozen of those inside are believed to be hard-core radicals. Government officials say they believe that hundreds inside are being held hostage.
A delegation from a hard-line religious party attempted to enter the mosque Saturday with hopes of mediating, but the politicians got caught in crossfire between security forces and radicals and were forced to withdraw. One of the politicians was later detained for allegedly trying to take food and water inside the mosque compound.
The politicians accused the government of deliberately sabotaging the peacemaking effort. "The government started firing. It was not from inside," said Maulana Abdul Majeed Hazarvi, a politician who has been involved in mediation initiatives.
But government officials said gunmen in the mosque had opened fire first, and they accused the delegation of trying to politicize the conflict.
Special correspondents Shahzad Khurram in Islamabad and Imtiaz Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.