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Pakistan Police Battle Religious Militants in Capital


Pakistani security forces have exchanged gunfire with hundreds of students holed up inside a radical mosque in central Islamabad. Officials have confirmed six deaths, including security personnel and students, and both sides are reporting several people injured. VOA Correspondent Benjamin Sand has more from the capital.

The sound of gunfire echoed for blocks as fighting erupted outside the radical Lal Masjid or Red Mosque.

Students from the mosque set fire to at least two nearby government buildings, including the Ministry of Environment.

Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao says the students sparked the confrontation after midday.

He says police were using tear gas to break up a demonstration outside the mosque when several students opened fire, killing at least one officer.

Witnesses say the mosque has begun broadcasting calls for suicide bomb attacks over its loudspeakers.

Security forces have surrounded the mosque, but officials say the government wants to avoid aggravating an already bloody confrontation.

Local media report the government sent a mediator into the mosque to help negotiate a ceasefire.

Lal Masjid has been at the center of a growing conflict between government authorities and religious militants in the capital.

The mosque's clerics have vowed to impose a strict Taleban-style Islamic law, in a direct challenge to the government.

Student supporters have launched a series of increasingly provocative raids around Islamabad.

Hundreds of students have occupied a popular children's library since January. Hundreds more have helped kidnap several policemen and a number of alleged prostitutes in recent weeks.

The government has threatened to retaliate, but until now it continually backed down in favor of efforts to reach negotiated settlements.

The stand off was increasingly seen as a significant political embarrassment for Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf.

Government critics also used the violent division between moderates and the mosque to underscore claims that the president has failed to confront religious militants.

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