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ISLAMABAD, July 11: The government said on Wednesday that army commandos had wiped out all militant resistance in Islamabad’s Lal Masjid compound after an eight-day operation, but withheld from the media some vital information about the civilian casualty toll.

A witness, who had access to the two buildings, told Dawn of having seen piles of bodies lying on the floors.

A promised media trip to the site was put off for a day, fuelling speculation that the government was buying time to remove some telltale signs.

The top military spokesman put the death toll of militants since the start of the operation on July 3 at 73 and that of troops at 10. But other accounts, including one by a witness, said the civilian toll could be much higher.

These fears were strengthened even by an afternoon news briefing by Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Director-General Maj-Gen Waheed Arshad when he said he could not give an exact figure until the operation, then at ‘sanitisation’ or ‘clearing’ stage, was complete.

But he later told the Dawn News television channel the death toll of militants had risen to 73. On Tuesday he had put the toll at 50.

The authorities’ refusal to allow the media to visit the curfew-bound Lal Masjid area, which has been cordoned off by troops, raised fears a number of women and children might have been killed along with militants.

Gen Arshad said at the briefing that the media team had not been taken to the scene because the second phase of the operation had started clearing the area of the final hardcore of militants putting up a fight to the death.

“We have concurrently started the second phase of the operation: combing and sanitisation of the whole area. We will take media people to the site on Thursday.”

The eyewitness, who said he had visited the complex on Wednesday, told Dawn that the site was littered with bodies wrapped in white shrouds. “I could not count them but they must be in the hundreds.”

The witness, who did not want to be identified, said many of the bodies had decomposed, enveloping the place in stench.

“I saw some bodies on the rooftop of the mosque being nibbled at by birds.”

He said the structure of the Jamia Hafsa had been badly damaged, but the condition of Lal Masjid was comparatively better.

The outer walls of the complex stand demolished at many places and one can see inside of the mosque through breaches that the authorities had made by explosives to make escape possible.

The witness said that volunteers and private rescue services had been stopped from lifting bodies, which were likely to be shifted elsewhere at night, although some of them were sent to two mortuaries in Islamabad’s I-8 sector.

GHAZI’S BODY: The body of Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi was flown by helicopter to his native village of Rojhan Mazari, in Punjab’s Rajanpur district.

However, on a petition filed by his two sisters, the Supreme Court directed the authorities to stop his burial unless all his family members were able to go there to attend the funeral.

Interior ministry spokesman Brig Javed Iqbal Cheema said during the joint news conference along with the ISPR chief that Maulana Abdul Aziz, Ghazi's elder brother, would be taken to Rojhan Mazari with the body.

“As there is no other member of Ghazi's family in Islamabad ... we are shifting his body to his native village with his brother,” he said.

The military spokesman said that troops had started the second phase of the operation against hardcore militants holed up in Lal Masjid. Three more Special Services Group (SSG) commandos were wounded in Wednesday’s clashes.

He said the operation was not over `because we have been facing resistance from inside the mosque’ from some militants still present there who had opened fire on the security forces during an operation to clear the entire complex of landmines laid by militants.

“There are very few militants left. It is nearly over,” the military spokesman said.

A total of 86 women and children were able to come out of the complex since the final assault was launched at dawn on Tuesday.

“They are under the process of screening,” the military spokesman said.

In reply to a question, the interior ministry spokesman said there had been no reports of a backlash to the operation so far. However, he added, security forces had been put on a high alert across the country.

The ISPR chief said that security forces had made two cordons -- first by the SSG battalion of commandos and the second one by Rangers and police.

“Only 164 SSG men took part in the operation,” he said.

The security forces, he said, had two targets: to save the lives of hundreds of women and children holed up in the mosque, and to clean up the whole complex of militants.

CURFEW BREAK: The curfew imposed in Sector G-6, where Lal Masjid is located, was relaxed on Wednesday from 4pm to 6pm.

“We cannot lift it totally unless the whole area in and around the mosque is cleaned up,” he added.

Giving details about the death of SSG Commander Lt-Col Haroon

Islam, the ISPR chief said the officer was shot by militants while he was planting some explosives beneath the outer wall to make a breach and died after reaching the hospital. He said no suicide attack had been carried out by militants during the whole operation.