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

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Pakistani Army Commander Dies in Mosque Siege

Pakistani Army Commander Dies in Mosque Siege

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ROBERT SMITH, host:

A senior Pakistani army commander was killed this morning as his forces blasted holes in the walls around the besieged Red Mosque in Islamabad. An Islamic cleric, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, is holed up inside with 100 militants and an undetermined number of religious students. President Pervez Musharraf warned the militants yesterday that they would be killed if they didn't surrender.

Joining us is Washington Post reporter Griff Witte in Islamabad. Good morning.

Mr. GRIFF WITTE (Reporter, The Washington Post): Good morning, Robert.

SMITH: How did the death of the army commander change the situation there?

Mr. WITTE: Well, I think that it puts a little bit more pressure on the government to really take decisive action here. This is a conflict that has been playing out over the course of six days now. We're in day six of the siege, and until now, the government had suffered initial casualties in the first day, but it did not suffered any more after that. But, as you said, this morning there was an army commando who was killed and a second who was injured. So this does put more pressure on the government now to take decisive action.

SMITH: What do we know about conditions inside the mosque this morning? Are they running out of food and water?

Mr. WITTE: Well, it depends on who you ask. The cleric inside, Ghazi, says that he has enough supply to keep him going for about another month or so. But we are getting scattered accounts from the inside - from people who are saying that conditions are getting pretty desperate in there, that they are in need of food, that they are in need of water, and that they won't be able to hold out that much longer.

SMITH: The government says that the cleric, Ghazi, is holding children in the mosque against their will. But Ghazi denies that the students there are coerced. From the people you've spoken with, what's the real story?

Mr. WITTE: Well, you do certainly - I talked to several family members of those who are inside who say that they've talked with their children, they talked with their loved ones and they - their loved ones have said they want to come out and they are being prevented from getting them out. A contingent of family members went to the gates of the mosque the other day, and they were fired on from militants within.

So it does seem as though there is something of a hostage situation going on right now. It's obviously to Ghazi's benefit to keep women and children inside because as long as he does that, he feels that he can stave off the ground base assault by the commandos.

SMITH: This morning, Ghazi said he hopes that the confrontation or even his death will spark an Islamic revolution in the country and President Musharraf has suffered intense political criticism over the last few months, plus a few assassination attempts. Is there a real possibility of an Islamic revolution in Pakistan?

Mr. WITTE: Not at the moment, I don't think so. I think that it's a very small minority of Pakistanis who have really radical views. It's really not a pervasive sense here that Pakistan needs to become a theocracy as Ghazi has preached. But you do see a creeping role of the radicals as you see increased militantism in the country and I think that it is something that Musharraf is obviously taking notice of now. Although moderates in the country feel that he's taking notice of this far too late and that he needed to act much sooner to arrest this rise of radicalism.

SMITH: Was the siege influenced the Pakistani public? Are they more receptive now to Ghazi's words?

Mr. WITTE: I don't think so. There were originally two clerics inside, one was Ghazi and one was his older brother, Maulana Aziz. Maulana Aziz tried to flee the mosque the other night dressed in a burka and was arrested. And then it's really been quite humiliating for him and it's really damaged the brother's reputation within the community of radical scholars and I think that they've lost a lot of credibility within that community.

SMITH: Ghazi said he would lay down his arms if he and his followers were not arrested. Are there any chances of the government letting these militants walk away?

Mr. WITTE: It's - (unintelligible) says the chance of that are remote. President Musharraf is a former army commando himself and yesterday he had very tough language when speaking on this. He said, basically, the militants need to either surrender or face death. And it seems as though, if we do not get a surrender sometime in the next few days, those commandos are in fact going to storm the compound and there will be a lot of death as a result.

SMITH: Griff Witte of The Washington Post speaking to us from Islamabad. Thanks, Griff.

Mr. WITTE: Robert, thank you.

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