Pakistani Army Commander Dies in Mosque Siege

Pakistani religious student flash victory signs during a government handover ceremony. i i

Pakistani religious student flash victory signs during a government handover ceremony to their parents in Islamabad on Sunday. Farooq Naeem/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Farooq Naeem/AFP/Getty Images
Pakistani religious student flash victory signs during a government handover ceremony.

Pakistani religious student flash victory signs during a government handover ceremony to their parents in Islamabad on Sunday.

Farooq Naeem/AFP/Getty Images

A senior Pakistani army commander was killed and two were wounded Sunday as his forces blasted holes in the wall around the besieged Red Mosque in Islamabad. An Islamic cleric, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, is holed up inside with about 100 militants and an undetermined number of religious students.

The death of the army commander puts more pressure on the Pakistani government to take action to end the six-day standoff at the mosque, Griff Witte of the Washington Post tells NPR's Robert Smith.

On Saturday, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf threatened to kill the holdouts unless they surrendered.

"Those who are inside Lal Masjid should surrender, otherwise they will get killed," Musharraf told reporters in his first comments on the standoff.

"No one can fight the power of the government, but the problem is that there are women and children inside," he said while inspecting a flood-ravaged area of southwestern Pakistan.

Thousands of troops have surrounded the mosque and an adjoining seminary for women over the past six days in the heart of the Pakistani capital, but have so far held back from an all-out assault.

Gunfire and heavy explosions could be heard just after midnight Sunday and then sporadically throughout the dawn hours, punctuating the thunder of a fierce monsoon downpour.

Musharraf said his government had exercised restraint to ensure the safety of women and children, who officials say are being held hostage by the mosque's senior cleric, Abdul Rashid Ghazi.

Ghazi, a former civil servant turned rigid Islamist, says he and his followers prefer martyrdom to the unconditional surrender demanded by the government. He denies holding anyone against their will.

Although the government says only 20 people have died since Tuesday, Ghazi told the local Geo television channel more than 70 of his students had been slain by government gunfire. The claim could not be independently verified.

Arshad said the dead commando had been overseeing the operation to blast holes in the walls of the compound when he was shot a number of times during "intense firing" by militants. Both men belonged to the army's Special Services Group, an elite force that Musharraf once commanded.

"They were working to help the women and children, who have been taken hostage by extremists and militants, Abdul Rashid Ghazi and his people, to free them from their clutches," Arshad said.

He said that security forces have used explosives to blast six or seven holes in the perimeter walls of the embattled school and several people have escaped through them.

Three paramilitary troops were wounded on Saturday.

The government says the militants are armed with assault rifles, grenades, petrol bombs and other weaponry.

Troops surrounded the mosque and seminary after tensions between government security forces and Islamic students — who have sought to impose Taliban-style rule in the city — erupted into deadly street clashes.

More than 1,200 people, mainly students from the mosque's two Islamic schools, have fled the complex. Officials say up to 100 armed militants and an unknown number of students remain inside.

Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao accused the 43-year-old Ghazi of holding women and children against their will.

"He (Ghazi) has taken these people hostage ... He will be responsible for any harm to the people inside," Sherpao told a press conference.

Ghazi said his followers were willing to lay down their arms, but on condition neither he nor they are arrested.

From NPR and Associated Press reports

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