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Negotiations Under Way to End Mosque Standoff
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A government delegation led by a former prime minister arrived at the besieged Red Mosque yesterday in an attempt to negotiate an end to the seven-day standoff in the capital, a senior official said.

The delegation, led by former Premier Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and including several religious scholars, swept through an army cordon around the mosque in a fleet of vehicles early evening.

"We have come here to play our role to resolve the issue. We hope that all these women and children who are inside should be allowed to come out," Hussain told reporters.

Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao said the delegation would address the mosque leader Abdul Rashid Ghazi using loudspeakers because it was too dangerous to go inside the mosque.

There was no indication what incentives the negotiators would offer to Ghazi, who officials say is holed up in the mosque with dozens of armed militants as well as about 150 hostages.

Ghazi says he and his followers prefer martyrdom to surrender.

The decision to give negotiations rather than an all-out assault a chance to work came after President General Pervez Musharraf held a high-level meeting on how to resolve the crisis.

Security officials, who demanded anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said among the mediators would be Taqi Usmani, one of Ghazi's former teachers.

Some clerics, including Usmani, had earlier attempted without success to persuade Ghazi to end the siege peacefully. The government claims the mosque is being defended by wanted terrorists.

A group of about 20 lawmakers from radical religious parties were stopped by soldiers from approaching the mosque as intense gunfire again erupted in the area mid-afternoon. The group was attempting to also act as mediators.

A mosque spokesman, meanwhile, claimed hundreds of men and women died in a military assault on the mosque and adjoining Islamic school for women.

It was impossible to verify this or the claim of terrorist involvement in the escalating battle of gunfire and rhetoric between the government and the defenders of the mosque.

Musharraf sent in troops last Wednesday, a day after supporters of the mosque's radical clerics fought gunbattles with security forces sent to contain their campaign to impose Taliban-style rule in the capital.

At least 24 people have died so far, including a special forces commando shot as the military blasted holes in the walls of the fortified compound. Officials said they hoped young students allegedly being held hostage in the mosque could use the gaps to escape.

"Whenever I hear the sounds of bullets I feel that my sister has been harmed. We appeal to the government, we appeal to Ghazi, we appeal to everyone. I want my sister back," said Maqir Abbasi, who had come to the military barricades around the mosque to seek news of his 22-year-old sister, Yasmin.

Abbasi said that his sister, a student at the seminary, was among the hostages.

The siege sparked an anti-government protest yesterday by some 20,000 tribesmen, including hundreds of masked militants wielding assault rifles, in the northwest region of Bajur.

(China Daily via agencies July 10, 2007)

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