PAKISTAN: Masjid crisis nears climax

Cleric says in Geo TV interview that he and his followers are willing to surrender frim Lal Masjid mosque seige

Times of India
Friday, July 6, 2007

Islamabad --- A Pakistani cleric holed up in a besieged mosque in Islamabad said on Thursday that his followers in a Taliban-style movement were willing to surrender.

Abdul Rashid Ghazi was speaking in a telephone interview broadcast on Geo Television as security forces surrounded the Lal Masjid, where he and hundreds of followers had held off a siege since Tuesday.

Ghazi, who remains inside the mosque is the brother of Maulana Abdul Aziz, the leader of the mosque, who was nabbed on Wednesday by security forces while trying to flee in a woman's burqa and high heels.

"If they are linked to any banned organisation, it can be verified," he said, adding, that there had been a smear campaign to make people believe that militant groups were among the students.

"It can be looked into ... those who are not should be let go," he said, adding that he was ready to abandon the women's madrassas in the compound and needed time to arrange to quit the mosque.

Meanwhile, Pakistani security forces blew holes in the outer walls of the mosque, security officials said.

Smoke was rising from the compound housing the Lal Masjid and a girls' madrassa in Islamabad following several explosions early Thursday evening. A fierce gunbattle was also heard. Witnesses said some troops being moved, but no sign that an assault was imminent. The captured leader of the Taliban-style movement said earlier that there were around 850 students in the mosque, including 600 women.

Maulana Abdul Aziz was remanded on Thursday to seven days' police custody by a court after he was slapped with seven cases by Pakistani authorities, including those relating to terrorism and abduction of six Chinese women.

Gunfire and explosions rolled repeatedly around Lal Masjid on Thursday. Hundreds of heavily armed troops backed by armoured vehicles ringed the complex as four helicopters circled over the area, from which journalists were barred.