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Pakistan troops kill rebel cleric
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09:39, July 11, 2007

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ISLAMABAD: Pakistani forces killed a rebel Islamist leader and more than 50 of his militants yesterday after 15 hours of fighting in a Islamabad mosque compound at the climax of a week-long siege.

Militants mounted a last stand in the basement of a religious school where cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi was killed, the Interior Ministry said. There was no immediate word on the fate of women and children he was said to have been using as human shields.

"Ghazi was surrounded by the militants who did not let him surrender and he was killed in the crossfire," Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema said.

Cheema said some surviving militants were still putting up resistance after Ghazi was killed.

At least eight soldiers were killed and 29 wounded in the assault to end the standoff at Lal Masjid, the Red Mosque, military spokesman Major-General Waheed Arshad said earlier. Fifty militants had been captured or surrendered by then.

"Operation Silence" started at 4 am (7 am, Beijing time) yesterday with a barrage of explosions and sustained gunfire, and news of Ghazi's death broke at around 7 pm. Even afterwards, two loud explosions were heard.

The operation took so long because there were more than 70 rooms in the sprawling mosque-school complex, and the militants were armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

"Militants are taking positions in almost every room, they're fighting from room to room, they have positions in the basement, on the stairs," Arshad said.

Fear that many women and children were inside the complex had stopped the military using full force during the assault.

At least 30 children and 24 women managed to get out. It was unclear how many more women and children remained inside but earlier officials had said hundreds could be there.

Many of the women had been among the cleric's most fervent supporters.

Six of the children said they had been kept in the basement of the mosque but fled when their guards disappeared after commandos overran it, Arshad said.

By early afternoon, loud blasts were still rocking the heart of Islamabad and militants had resumed firing from the mosque's minarets, Arshad said.

Commandos backed by paramilitary troops first seized the mosque then swept resistance from the rooftop of the school, or madrasa, and worked their way down through the building.

There were fears the militants might resort to suicide bombings. Officials said on Monday militants had distributed vests packed with explosives.

Before the assault began, at least 21 people had been killed in the weeklong standoff that followed months of mounting tension between the mosque's hardline clerics and the government.

The Red Mosque has been a center of militancy for years, known for its support for Afghanistan's Taliban and opposition to President Pervez Musharraf's backing for the United States.

The government had been demanding the unconditional surrender of Ghazi and scores of the radical cleric's hardcore fighters, who authorities said included wanted militants.

Source: China Daily/Agencies

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