Pakistani Troops Storm Red Mosque

Pakistani forces stormed Islamabad's Red Mosque, ending a siege that began last week. Pakistani authorities said at least 50 militants and eight soldiers were killed. Aryn Baker, a reporter for Time magazine in Islamabad, talks with Renee Montagne.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie sitting in for Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

We go now to the Red Mosque in Islamabad, which troops have stormed. Loud explosions could be heard across Pakistan's capital during the all-day assault on the radical mosque. Armed Islamist students and their leaders have been holding out there for a week. In today's assault at least 50 people have been killed and over a hundred either captured or surrendered; several soldiers have also died. The troops are trying to clear the remaining pockets of resistance in the mosque. It's believed that an unknown number of women and children remain there and they are being held as human shield.

We turn now to Aryn Baker in Islamabad. She's a reporter for Time magazine who was in the mosque last week on the day that the standoff began. Hello.

Ms. ARYN BAKER (Reporter, Time Magazine): Hello.

MONTAGNE: Let's begin with today. What triggered the decision to launch this assault on the mosque?

Ms. BAKER: Last night at around midnight there was a group of religious leaders and political leaders that went in for a last minute attempt to negotiate a surrender. It appears that that surrender did not happen. Ghazi - that's Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the militant leader of the mosque - said that he was prepared to become a martyr. And around 4:00 AM, after the announcement of the failed talks, the army went in to start the raid.

MONTAGNE: Now, there's been considerable confusion about the occupants of the mosque, the current occupants. There are said to be students, women, children, armed militants, foreign fighters among them. Can you sort this out for us?

Mr. BARNES: Well yes, there will definitely be women. When I was in the mosque last week, I was speaking with quite a few of the women who are very militant, probably in some cases more so than the men. I imagine they are still in there. They were prepared to die when I spoke to them then, very vehemently. Their children might be there as well. As for foreign fighters, that is still up for debate; that's what the government is saying. However, when I was there, I didn't see any foreign fighters and many people said that they didn't need foreign fighters, that this was their own fight.

MONTAGNE: Now, back to the moment that this all started. You were there in the compound. Tell us about how it started - a gun battle between security forces and armed mosque occupants.

Ms. BAKER: What happened on that Tuesday morning was that the government had decided to cordon off the mosque compound so they started rolling concertina wire across the street to block off the area. The male students went in and started to fight them off. At which point, the female students charged out of their side and started protesting. And that's when the male students tried to occupy the building across the street, which was the Environment Ministry. And the government forces responded with tear gas, the militants responded with gunfire.

MONTAGNE: One of the leaders, rather famously or infamously, escaped or tried to escape and was captured wearing a Burqa. But the main leader, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, has been there. Any word on his whereabouts as of now?

Ms. BAKER: We think he's holed up in a basement in one of the few rooms that has not been cleaned up by security forces. I'm hearing reports that he's in there with women and children as either a human shield or, I suspect, more of a propaganda bit. If he gets blown up, obviously you have innocent victims and that plays well against the government from their point of view.

MONTAGNE: Any sense, finally, of what the government will do with these last holdouts?

Ms. BAKER: They've been making every effort possible to spare the lives of any perceived innocent or even militants if they can surrender. So I suspect they will try and do whatever they can to prevent killing people. However, if Ghazi is determined to martyr himself, I don't think anything is going stop the deaths of these women and children as well.

MONTAGNE: And we'll be keeping track of this throughout the morning. Thank you very much. Aryn Baker is a reporter for Time magazine in Islamabad, Pakistan, where today troops stormed the radical Red Mosque in the center of the Pakistani capital.

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