Militants in Pakistan Mosque Said Ready to Die As many as 1,000 radicals holed up in Islamabad's Red Mosque are ready for martyrdom rather than surrender, a senior cleric says.

Militants in Pakistan Mosque Said Ready to Die

Pakistani army soldiers escort detained blindfolded hardcore militants who were holed up in The Red Mosque in Islamabad. Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty hide caption

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Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty

Pakistani army soldiers escort detained blindfolded hardcore militants who were holed up in The Red Mosque in Islamabad.

Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty

Hundreds of pro-Taliban militants besieged inside a mosque in the Pakistani capital are ready to die rather than surrender to army troops, a senior cleric said Friday as the two sides exchanged sporadic gunfire.

Abdul Rashid Ghazi rejected government calls for an unconditional surrender, saying he and his die-hard followers holed up in Islamabad's Red Mosque will not give up.

"We will be martyred, but we will not surrender," Ghazi told GEO television, a private channel.

As the siege of the mosque entered a third day, troops rocked the complex with gunfire and explosions but appeared to be holding back from a potentially bloody final assault.

The government was keen to avoid a bloodbath that would further damage President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's embattled administration and said troops would not storm the mosque while women and children were inside.

The mosque standoff underscores the fragility of Pakistan's government, which is a key U.S. ally in the war on terror, but has been largely unable to control its own Islamic extremism. Also on Friday, gunshots were heard not far from a military air base while Pakistan's President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's plane was in the air, officials said.

The top army spokesman, Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad, denied some local news reports that the president's plane was targeted by a rocket. However, a police official and two security officials who all spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said that police found two anti-aircraft guns on a rooftop near Chaklala Air Base in Rawalpindi, a city adjacent to the capital.

An Associated Press photographer saw about 200 police and soldiers surrounding the house where the guns were found. The area is located under flight paths from the air base.

At the mosque, two dozen parents and other family members waited anxiously behind security barriers some 200 yards from the mosque, with about 10 allowed to approach the shrine's entrance.

During lulls in the fighting, some parents have approached the mosque, handed notes to those inside with the names of their children, who have then emerged. Most are young students at the mosque's seminaries for males and females.

Gunfire rang out around the mosque before dawn and again later Friday morning. Armed troops and barbed wire coils on the streets near the mosque prevented journalists from going near the scene.

There were no immediate reports of injuries and it was not possible to determine who initiated the latest round of gunfire.

Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao said soldiers were trying to blast holes in the walls of the fortress-like compound of the mosque and an adjoining seminary for girls, seeking to wear down the defenders' resolve and force a surrender without a battle.

In the interview, Ghazi denied government allegations that he was holding some of the young students as hostages and also rejected that he was only acting as a front man for hard-core militants within the mosque.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press