ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – A radical cleric whose besieged mosque sought to impose strict Islamic morality on the Pakistani capital was killed Tuesday after refusing to respond to troops who demanded his surrender, officials said.
About 50 militants and eight soldiers died when the military stormed the sprawling Red Mosque compound.
Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the public face of the pro-Taliban mosque that challenged the government’s writ in Islamabad, had vowed to die rather than give himself up.
An army official said Ghazi had received bullet wounds and when he was told to surrender, he gave no reply. Commandos then fired another volley of bullets and found Ghazi dead, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to media.
Javed Iqbal Cheema, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, confirmed Ghazi’s death and said the cleric’s body was still lying in the compound, and that “battle hardened” militants were defending themselves.
Officials, who earlier said the military held back on an all-out assault on Ghazi because there were children being held in the basement as hostages, offered no details on who was with him when he died.
“The government is using full force. This is naked aggression,” Ghazi said hours before his death. “My martyrdom is certain now.”
Troops had stormed the sprawling mosque compound in the capital before dawn after efforts to bring a peaceful end to a weeklong standoff with security forces failed.
Ghazi and his brother Abdul Aziz, the mosque’s chief cleric, had been using the mosque as a base to send out radicalized students to enforce their version of Islamic morality, including abducting alleged prostitutes and trying to “re-educate” them at the mosque.
Khalid Pervez, the city’s top administrator, said as many as 50 women were the first to be freed by the militants and had emerged from the complex following the escape of 26 children.
Mohammed Khalid Jamil, a reporter for the local Aaj television network, was among journalists who said they saw dozens of women and girls walking on a road away from the mosque. They were wearing burqas, he said.
A military official who demanded anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said the women included the wife and daughter of Abdul Aziz, who was arrested while trying to flee the complex last week.
It was not clear how many noncombatants were being held hostage or were staying behind because they believed in the mosque’s cause. Last week, a number of those who left the mosque, including young women, said their colleagues were there of their own free will and prepared to die.
Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad said hostages were still being held and that fighting was intense: “We are fighting room by room.” He added that stun grenades were being used to avoid casualties among the hostages.
He said about 50 militants have been killed in Tuesday’s assault, while eight soldiers had died and 29 were wounded.
Abdul Sattar Edhi, head of the private relief agency Edhi Foundation, told reporters that the army had asked him to prepare 400 white shrouds used for covering the dead.
The siege of one of the capital’s most prominent mosques was prompted by clashes last Tuesday between security forces and supporters of the mosque’s hardline clerics. More than 80 people have been killed in the fighting since July 3.
The vigilante anti-vice campaign has proved an embarrassment to President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, a key U.S. ally in its war on terror, and underlined his administration’s failure to control extremist religious schools.
But a major loss of life at the Red Mosque could further turn public opinion against the president, who already faces mounting opposition for his bungled attempts to fire the country’s chief justice.
In Washington, a State Department spokesman, Tom Casey, said the militants were given many warnings before the commandos moved in.
“The government of Pakistan has proceeded in a responsible way,” Casey said. “All governments have a responsibility to preserve order.”
To protest the siege, more than 100 armed tribesmen and religious students near the northwestern town of Batagram temporarily blocked a road that leads to neighboring China, police officials said.
And in the eastern city of Multan, more than 500 Islamic religious school students rallied, chanting “Down with Musharraf” and blocking a main road by burning tires.
The U.S. Embassy recommended that Americans in Pakistan to limit their movement in the area of the northwestern city of Peshawar, warning that “terrorist elements” were threatening attacks on Pakistani government, police and army institutions in retaliation for the Red Mosque siege.
The army raid began about 4 a.m. after a government-backed effort led by ex-premier Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain to try and negotiate a peaceful end to the standoff failed. One cleric in the mediation team, Rehmatullah Khalil, accused Musharraf of sabotaging a draft agreement with the mosque’s chief cleric, which the government denied.
Soon after the mediators left the environs of the mosque, commandos attacked from three directions and quickly cleared the ground floor of the mosque, Arshad said. Some 20 children who rushed toward the advancing troops were brought to safety, he said.
Besides the women, Arshad said about 50 suspected militants, some of them youngsters, have been captured or emerged from the mosque since fighting began Tuesday.
Arshad said the army attack was now focused on the women’s school. He said the entire compound included 75 rooms, large basements and expansive courtyards. About 80 percent of it had been cleared, he said.
An officer, who demanded anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said troops had demanded four times that Ghazi surrender, but his followers responded with gunfire. Ghazi said he was ready to die rather than give up, the officer said.
Arshad said the well-trained militants were armed with machine guns, rocket launchers and gasoline bombs and had booby-trapped some areas.
Pakistan’s Religious Affairs Minister Mohammed Ijaz ul-Haq said foreign militants were among those fighting with the mosque defenders, quoting Ghazi.
Ghazi told the private Geo TV network in a telephone interview about two hours after Tuesday’s assault began that his mother had been wounded by gunshot. One of Ghazi’s aides, Abdul Rahman, later said she had died.