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ISLAMABAD: As the stand-off between the Lal Masjid brigade and security forces continued for the fifth day running amid yet another round of fierce gunbattles on Saturday, residents of the curfew zone and nearby areas were beginning to question the strategy, or even ability of security personnel to deal with the situation.

As night fell on Saturday, there was still no sign of an end to the bloody conflict.

“Why security personnel specifically trained to handle such situations, have so far failed to overcome a handful of militants and the firebrand cleric, Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi, leading the resistance,” the people wondered.

The Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal made yet another attempt to present itself as a possible mediator. But its legislators were not allowed to meet the besieged Maulana Ghazi.

The MMA MPs, led by Maulana Shah Abdul Aziz, went to the curfew-hit G-6 sector curfew zone to proceed to the mosque to meet Maulana Ghazi and persuade him to surrender unconditionally and secure the release of children and women trapped inside the mosque. Wife of Jamaat-i-Islami Amir Qazi Hussain Ahmed, his daughter Samia Raheel Qazi, MNAs Kausar Farid and Jamila were among the MPs in the delegation.

Later, a member of the delegation and local leader of the Jamaat-i-Islami, Syed Bilal, and his party man Mohammad Kashif were arrested by the police.

As the day started, the government squeezed the curfew area around Lal Masque. The move substantiated people’s apprehensions that the standoff will prolong.

On the other side, the stance of the Lal Masjid cleric and hardcore militants to fight till the last bullet is reported to have strengthened as the people barricaded inside mosque, surrounded by heavy forces, have stopped surrendering themselves.

Only a 12-year-old boy surrendered on Saturday. But media people did not believe the claim of security officials that the boy, Javed Ahmed, wearing neat and clean clothes, had spent five days under custody of the holed up militants.

Some people believe that the government is intentionally trying to prolong the issue to get some political mileage. They said they were not excepting the magnitude of resistance being offered by the hardcore militants.

Sporadic firing between the security forces and besieged rebels continued on and off throughout the day, but its intensity was quite low as compared to that of the previous four days.

For the first time during the five-day battle, the government tried to impose a censorship on the media by not allowing its personnel to proceed close to Lal Masjid.

The fifth day of fighting started with the killing of a security personnel who was reportedly standing near the old Naval Complex building, some 500 yards off Lal Masjid. However, an interior ministry spokesman denied the killing, saying the officer received bullet injuries when he was shot by one of the snipers taking positions inside the mosque on Saturday morning.

In a major development which also took place in the early hours of Saturday, local police took over the control of Jamia Fareedia, a seminary of Lal Masjid for male students located almost 5km from Lal Masjid in Sector E-7. Police sources said they did not find students in the seminary as they were believed to have gone to Lal Masjid to take part in the battle.

Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao at a press said that Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz had convened a meeting to review the Lal Masjid situation and directed the authorities concerned to ensure minimum losses of life in the operation.

The prime minister, he said, had directed that the people arrested from Lal Masjid should be released after debriefing. “I think a total of 595 detainees would be released tomorrow,” he said, adding that except three girls, all the women and girls arrested from the mosque had been released.

The minister said the meeting had decided to set a camp for parents coming for their children trapped inside the mosque. It also decided that steps would be taken to provide relief to residents of the Sector G-6 who had braved the battle for the last four days. In this connection the curfew zone has been reduced as Hakim Luqman Road, Embassy Road and the road from Lal Quarter to Ambassador Hotel.

The minister said that special cards had been issue to the government officials living in the curfew zone so that they could attend their offices. “We will also issue cards to traders of the area so that they could open their shops. We have decided to increase the number of mobile utility vans from eight to 20 which will provide essential items to the area people.

Mr Sherpao said he had reports that the militants had made hostage children and women and they were not allowed to go outside.

Responding to a question, the minister said that so far 19 people had been killed in the operation, including a soldier.