Nirupama Subramanian

Army officer killed, commando injured while blasting a hole in the mosque wall

ISLAMABAD: On its sixth day, the showdown at the Lal Masjid claimed the life of an Army officer and wounded another, but an end to the stand-off was not in sight, with the cleric and the militants holed up inside the mosque remaining defiant and the Government still unwilling to carry out an all-out strike against them.

Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azeem said the Government was dealing with a “hostage situation” in which women, children and men were being held by cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi against their will in the masjid and the adjoining Jamia Hafsa seminary.

Local television channels said intercepts of phone calls to and from the mosque indicated that some of the militants inside belonged to two banned groups, the Jaish-e-Mohammed and the Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islam.

Lt. Col. Haroon Islam, a commando of the Special Service Group was killed, and another commando Maj. Tariq wounded during an operation by the security forces early on Sunday to blast a hole in the mosque’s wall to give people inside a chance to escape, military spokesman Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad said.

Reports said some parts of the wall were dynamited and brought down. During the day, the Government released 152 boys who surrendered earlier this week and were sent to the Adiala prison in Rawalpindi for questioning.

Saturday’s “surrender or die” declaration of President Pervez Musharraf created anticipation that the end game of this showdown was imminent but, significantly, he set no deadline and the Government is still hoping to resolve this without striking inside the mosque.

Information Minister Muhammed Ali Durrani said the Government could launch and finish an operation in the mosque “under an hour” if it wanted but was holding back because of the presence of up to 400 women and children inside the Jamia Hafsa seminary.

Religious Affairs Minister Eijaz-ul-Haq said there was danger that the militants would start killing the women and children if an operation was launched. He said there would be no amnesty for “terrorists.”

On Sunday, a lone helicopter hovered above the Lal Masjid for a few minutes but there was no gunfire or explosions as witnessed in the mosque’s neighbourhood since Wednesday. The Government relaxed the curfew in the sector twice.

Mr. Ghazi, the cleric who leads the militant students, told a television channel that he would come out of the mosque if the Government promised a “judicial enquiry” by the Supreme Court and an open trial. It was not clear what he wanted investigated and who would be on trial. He said 300 people inside the mosque died in the firing by security forces.

But officials said there was no reliable information available about the casualties inside the mosque.

As the showdown drags on, the Government is coming under pressure not to carry out its ultimatum but negotiate with the militants inside, and to consider giving amnesty to Mr. Ghazi.

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