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Lal Masjid Crisis Nearing Climax
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Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf gave the go ahead for a final operation against defiant Lal Masjid militants on Sunday night, a private TV channel Dawn News reported Sunday.

The decision was made at a top-level meeting, Dawn News said.

Journalists who were given permission to report near the Lal Masjid have been removed from the site, and security forces have started a search operation in the curfew areas, according to Dawn News.

The President also announced that the government would not provide safe passage for Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the deputy chief of the mosque leading the resistance.

Government and military officials say Ghazi has between 50 and 60 hardcore militants - some from Al-Qaida-linked Pakistani groups - leading the fight.

Musharraf on Saturday gave the militants a "surrender-or-die" ultimatum.

Ghazi has said he prefers "martyrdom," and in a statement carried by newspapers Sunday, the cleric said he and his followers hoped their deaths would spark an Islamic revolution.

"We have a firm belief in God that our blood will lead to a revolution," wrote Ghazi. "God willing, Islamic revolution will be the destiny of this nation."

His Taliban-style movement is symptomatic of the extremism seeping into Pakistani cities from tribal areas near the Afghan border.

As intermittent gunfire continued to echo around Lal Masjid, Minister for Religious Affairs Ijaz ul Haq told a news conference Lal Masjid's defenders included "terrorists and militants who are wanted both within and outside the country."

Ghazi has said he has close to 2,000, mostly female, followers with him; the minister put the number between 200 and 500.

Troops have surrounded the Lal Masjid in Islamabad since Tuesday when clashes between armed student radicals and government forces erupted after months of tension.

The death toll from the conflict rose to at least 21 after a lieutenant colonel died when commandos came under fire from the compound that houses the girls' seminary as well as the mosque.

Lal Masjid has been a hotbed of militancy for years, known for its support for Afghanistan's Taliban and opposition to Musharraf's backing of the US-led campaign against terrorism.

No full-scale assault

Security forces have refrained from mounting a full-scale assault because of fears for the hundreds of women and children, some of whom the government says are being kept as human shields.

Troops began blasting holes in the walls in the early hours of Sunday to provide an escape route for those inside.

About 1,200 students left the mosque after the clashes began but only about 20 have come out since Friday. Two slipped through the breaches made by the blasts Sunday.

While some women and children may have been coerced into staying, there are many women who have been among the most fervent supporters of Ghazi and his elder brother Abdul Aziz, who was caught on Wednesday trying to escape.

Ghazi denied children were being used as human shields.

He told Pakistani television channels that more than 300 followers, mostly female students, were killed in overnight gun battles. Information Minister Mohammad Ali Durrani said Ghazi was lying.

Water, gas, and power to the mosque were cut and food was said to be running short. Security forces have occupied another city madrasa linked to the Lal Masjid.

Many Pakistanis support the action against the hardliners whose behavior, including a vigilante campaign against perceived vice, raised concern about the spread of militant Islam.

Islamist politicians have called for an end to the siege and for Ghazi to release the women and children.

(Xinhua News Agency China Daily via agencies July 9, 2007)

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