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Rebel cleric urges Islamic revolution
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11:01, July 09, 2007

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A rebel cleric said he and his fighters hoped their deaths would spark an Islamic revolution in Pakistan, as commandos blew holes in the walls of their besieged mosque compound to help women and children inside escape.

Troops have surrounded the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, in Islamabad since Tuesday when clashes between armed student radicals and government forces erupted after months of tension.

The death toll from the conflict rose to at least 21 after a lieutenant-colonel died when commandos came under fire from the compound that houses a girls' madrasa (Islamic religious school) as well as the mosque.

Government and military officials say rebel cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi has between 50-60 hard core militants - some from Al-Qaida-linked Pakistani groups - leading the fighting.

President Pervez Musharraf on Saturday gave the militants a "surrender-or-die" ultimatum.

Ghazi has said he preferred "martyrdom". In a statement carried by newspapers yesterday, the cleric said he and his followers hoped their deaths would spark an Islamic revolution.

"We have firm belief in God that our blood will lead to a revolution," wrote Ghazi. "God willing, Islamic revolution will be the destiny of this nation."

His Taliban-style movement is symptomatic of the militancy and extremism seeping into Pakistani cities from tribal areas near the Afghan border.

As intermittent gunfire continued to echo around Lal Masjid, Religious Affairs Minister Mohammad Ejaz-ul-Haq told a news conference Lal Masjid's defenders included "terrorists, militants, who are wanted within, and outside, the country."

Ghazi has said he has close to 2,000, mostly female, followers with him. The minister put the number at between 200 to 500.

Lal Masjid has been a hotbed of militancy for years, known for its support for Afghanistan's Taliban and opposition to Musharraf's backing for the US-led campaign against terrorism.

No full-scale assault

Security forces have refrained from mounting a full-scale assault because of fears for the hundreds of women and children, some of whom the government says are being kept as human shields.

Troops began blasting holes in the walls in the early hours of yesterday to provide an escape route for those inside.

About 1,200 students left the mosque after the clashes began but only about 20 have come out since Friday. Two slipped through the breaches made by the blasts yesterday.

While some women and children may have been coerced into staying, there are women who have been among the most fervent supporters of Ghazi and his elder brother Abdul Aziz, who was caught on Wednesday trying to escape.

Ghazi denied children were being used as human shields.

He told Pakistani television channels that more than 300 followers, mostly female students, were killed in overnight gunbattles. Information Minister Mohammad Ali Durrani said Ghazi was lying.

Water, gas and power to the mosque were cut and food was said to be running short. Security forces have occupied another city madrasa linked to the Lal Masjid.

Many Pakistanis support the action against the hardliners whose behavior, including a vigilante campaign against perceived vice, raised concern about the spread of militant Islam.

Islamist politicians have called for an end to the siege and for Ghazi to release the women and children.

Source: China Daily/agencies

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