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Pakistan Troops Storm Mosque, Kill Rebel Cleric
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Pakistani forces broke a week-long siege around the Red Mosque in Islamabad and stormed the complex, killing a rebel Islamist leader and more than 50 of his militants yesterday after 15 hours of fighting. TV reports indicate that 134 people have so far been secured.

The Interior Ministry revealed that militants mounted a last stand in the basement of a religious school where cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi was killed while trying to surrender.

"Ghazi was surrounded by the militants who did not let him surrender and he was killed in the crossfire," Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema said.

At least eight soldiers were killed and 29 wounded in the assault on Lal Masjid, the Red Mosque, military spokesman Major-General Waheed Arshad said earlier. Around 88 militants were killed in the massive operation and fifty had been captured or had surrendered.

Cheema added that some militants were still resisting after the death of Ghazi.

Government officials announced that the security forces had cleared 80 percent of the Lal Masjid compound and that the remaining militants were holed up in Jamia Hafsa.

Umm-e-Hasaan, wife of Lal Masjid's chief cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz and principal of Jamia Hafsa, together with his daughter Asma, were both reported arrested on Tuesday, government officials said.

The latest figures put at 134 people, including 85 men, 27 women and 22 children, the number of people freed from the Lal Masjid militants by troops in Tuesday's operation.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court asked the Interior Ministry to provide a complete list of casualties, people evacuated, arrested and released by Friday.

"Operation Silence" started at 4 AM (7 AM, Beijing time) yesterday with a barrage of explosions and sustained gunfire, and news of Ghazi's death broke at around 7 PM.

The operation was protracted since the sprawling complex covers over 70 rooms and due to the groups of militants fighting back with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

"Militants are taking positions in almost every room, they're fighting from room to room, they have positions in the basement, on the stairs," Arshad said.

The military did not go all-out in the assault out of a desire to spare the many women and children inside the complex.

Although dozens of women and children were retrieved, officials said hundreds in total could be inside and that many women had been fervent defenders of the dead cleric.

Six of the children said they had been held in the basement but escaped after their guards disappeared, stated Arshad, adding that in the early afternoon explosions were still to be heard at the mosque with militants firing down on troops from the minarets.

Commandos supported by paramilitary troops first secured the mosque, before eliminating resistance on the roof of the nearby madrassah before working their way down.

Tension was high amidst fears that the militants might resort to suicide bombings after militants had been seen with explosive vests on Monday.

Before the assault began, at least 21 people had been killed during the weeklong standoff which derived after months of threats between the mosque's hardline clerics and the government.

The Red Mosque has been a center of militancy for years, known for backing the Taliban and opposing President Pervez Musharraf's alliance with the United States.

The government had demanded the unconditional surrender of Ghazi and scores of his hardcore fighters, who authorities said included wanted militants.

(China Daily via agencies, Xinhua News Agency July 11, 2007)

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