Mosque standoff intensifies
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Positions hardened in the standoff at the 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. The militants seemed 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 said he believed that 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.”
Although more than 1,200 people have fled the mosque since the siege began Tuesday, authorities estimated that several hundred remain within. Only a few dozen are suspected to be hard-core radicals; others appear to want to leave, but have been prevented from doing so.
Clerics at the pro-Taliban Red Mosque, also called the Lal Masjid, want to turn Pakistan into a theocracy. During the past few months, students at an affiliated madrassa, or religious school, have abducted alleged prostitutes and forced them to confess and threatened video store owners with attacks. On Tuesday, a clash between the radicals and government forces left at least 19 people dead.
After indicating Thursday night that he would leave the mosque peacefully, firebrand cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi said in a televised interview Friday that he had decided to fight to the death. “We can be martyred, but we will not court arrest,” he said.