ISLAMABAD, July 5: As a battle of nerves between heavily-armed security forces and militants holed up in the Lal-Masjid-Jamia Hafsa complex lingered for the third day, desertions by the Madressah students continued. However, late-night statements by cleric Maulana Abdul Rasheed Ghazi, seeking safe passage, indicated that the six-month-old saga was nearing end.
It was yet another day of high tension and drama in and around Lal Masjid, with repeated exchanges of fire, terrorising the militants with the deafening fire by dummy motors and almost continuous hovering of cobra helicopters to create an impression that a full-fledged operation was about to be launched. While bouts of intense tear-gassing continued in phases throughout the day, at one stage the security troops carried out controlled explosions to create a number of breaches in the outer wall of the mosque-madressah complex, including one 14-foot breach, which was the first clear indication that the option of storming the building was being seriously contemplated.
Senior officials of Pakistan Rangers and interior ministry said that even though they had flatly rejected Maulana Ghazi’s terms for surrender, including his request for safe passage, they were still delaying the storming of the complex in order to allow parents of some of the trapped students to use their influence to get their loved ones out. Some of them did succeed in the attempt and several women and men came out voluntarily.
However, the real action during the day was an attempt by several hardcore militants to escape. All of them were captured. Later in the evening a highly dejected Maulana Ghazi told reporters on phone that he and his men were prepared to give up their arms, provided they were not arrested and allowed to leave the area unharmed.
In one TV interview Maulana Ghazi refuted the government’s claim that some activists of banned outfits were present inside the mosque. “The government can photograph and collect the data of all those present with him inside the mosque and it can arrest those involved in some heinous crime,” he said.
He said he was not ready to surrender but he feared the post-arrest humiliation. He claimed that his arrested brother Maulana Abdul Aziz was coerced to record a TV interview. He said he and his companions should not be treated like criminals.
But apparently demoralised by the arrest of his elder brother on Wednesday night while trying to escape wearing a burqa, the otherwise belligerent Maulana Ghazi was not in his element. In television interviews he even offered to lay down arms, return the mosque and madressah to the institution that runs and manages seminaries, and denied having any suicide bombers among his hardcore loyalists. But he wanted safe passage for all his armed men.
“No such conditions are acceptable to us,” interior ministry’s spokesman Brigadier Cheema told reporters. And later Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao said there was absolutely no question of holding any further talks with the militants holed up in the mosque. Another minister, Tariq Azeem was even more categorical. “Ghazi and others will have to give up and offer an absolute, total and unconditional surrender,” he told a group of foreign journalists.The life in the sector G-6, where the mosque is located, and in the nearby areas remained crippled as curfew continued. However, a two-hour relaxation provided some relief to residents, who came out in large numbers to buy essential items.
The authorities had made special arrangements through mobile vans to sell basic goods in different parts of the area.
The number of militants who surrendered on Thursday was thin as compared to those who had came out of the compound on Tuesday and Wednesday, and only 40 to 50 male and female students surrendered during the whole day. It was observed that security personnel started firing whenever they saw nobody coming out of the mosque to surrender.
Throughout the day some sort of tension prevailed between security personnel and parents of those madressah students who had been taken away for questioning after they had come out of the mosque voluntarily. There were arguments and bouts of shouting in an area close to the place where the Rangers have set up their camp office. Some of the parents accused security personnel of deceiving them saying their children had left the mosque on their persuasion but when they came out they were held and treated like ‘terrorists’. The security personnel covered faces of the arrested students with their shirts, tied their hand behind their back and sent them to the Central Adiyala Jail in Rawalpindi.
The parents of the arrested students were not allowed to meet them and were asked to visit the jail.
All kinds of speculations about the exact number of casualties did the rounds as journalists were neither allowed inside hospitals nor permitted to go near the conflict zone. At one point Maulana Rasheed Ghazi told a private TV channel that some 35 to 40 people had been killed in the mosque but it was not confirmed by the authorities.
Hospital sources said that five bodies had been brought on Thursday from inside the mosque, and Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao said the death toll had reached 19. He said the security forces had made a 14-foot breach in the outer wall of the mosque so that children inside the mosque could come out.
Briefing the media, a senior official said five girls who had managed to escape from the mosque told the authorities that all the women and children in the mosque had been held hostage and kept in a locked room by armed militants.
He also claimed that earlier in the day, the militants had hurled hand-grenades on the security forces damaging an APC of the army.
Since the start of the security operation and deployment of army troops, several officials and ministers hold briefing for the media, after issuing conflicting statements. While one of the ministers said that 50 armed militants were among about 400 men and women in the mosque-madressah complex, a senior Rangers official said their assessment was that about 100 armed men were among those still in the building.
While different government officials gave different accounts of the events of the day, they all appeared to agree on one point -- not permitting the media to cover the developments.
Mr Sherpao said that President General Pervez Musharraf was constantly following the events and was fully behind all the actions being taken by the troops on the ground. —With additional reporting by Khaleeq Kiani, Amir Wasim, Munawer Azim and Muhammad Asghar