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Red Mosque complex a ruined battleground
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09:36, July 13, 2007

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Chunks of concrete are missing from the mosque's minarets. Madrassa walls painted with Islamic verses are now peppered with bullet holes. Black flies swarm over a rebel bunker, blasted apart under a stairwell.

A day after commandos completed a 35-hour assault that left at least 85 dead, the army guided media around the shattered masonry and blackened interiors of Islamabad's Red Mosque complex yesterday amid lingering questions over how many civilians were killed.

The military hoped to ease public skepticism and demonstrate how heavily armed militants had turned one of the city's most prominent holy sites into a fortress.

After opening the army's tangled barbed wire cordons around the sprawling complex for the first time, soldiers escorted reporters through the bent-back metal gates of the Jamia Hafsa, a girl's religious school next door to the mosque.

There was clear sign of the fierce room-to-room fighting. Inside and out, the concrete and white plaster walls were riddled by gunshot from commandos who breached the southern walls of the four-story building and traded fire with its defenders.

Militants appeared to have prepared firing positions, some on the exterior fortified with sand bags. But the stiffest resistance came from basement rooms where the Red Mosque's pro-Taliban cleric, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, was shot dead after refusing to surrender.

Ghazi, who had spearheaded a vigilante, anti-vice campaign in the capital, was buried in his home village in Punjab province yesterday. During a funeral speech his captured brother - the mosque's chief cleric - called for an Islamic revolution in Pakistan.

The army says it has so far recovered 75 bodies from inside the complex. Officials maintain that none appear to be women or children, but concede 19 bodies were burned beyond recognition.

Citizens and media have questioned the government's claim that virtually all noncombatants escaped harm during the savage fighting.

Qazi Hussain Ahmed, chief of Pakistan's biggest Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami, alleged yesterday between 400 and 1,000 students and their teachers had died in the army operation - but offered no evidence.

Thousands of girls and women aged from 4 into early 20s used to study Quran at the school, and the government says about 1,300 people in all fled unharmed during the eight-day standoff that began July 3 after street fighting broke out between security forces and militants.

Giving a guided tour, army spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad pointed inside a small, charred, windowless room where he claimed a suicide bomber with five or six hostages inside had blown himself up during the assault. He said the victims' corpses were charred beyond recognition.

Arshad said a second suicide bomber had detonated himself in the white-domed mosque - one of the most famous in the Pakistani capital - which is located at the opposite side of the complex to the madrassa.

Soldiers, who are still searching the complex for bodies and land mines, have recovered two other suicide vests - one from the body of a fighter, he said. The other was among an arsenal of the militants' weaponry and equipment that the army put on display.

Also on show were three crates of petrol bombs fashioned from green Sprite bottles, gas masks, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, recoilless rifles, dozens of AK-47s, pistols and two-way radios. Large plastic buckets held tennis-ball-size homemade bombs and knives.

Source: China Daily/agencies

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