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Pakistani Official Demands Surrender of Gunmen at Mosque


A standoff between Pakistani troops and students at a radical mosque headed into a second night, with more than a thousand people still holed up in the mosque in Islamabad. VOA correspondent Benjamin Sand reports from the capital.

More than 500 of the mosque's supporters surrendered Wednesday after the government ordered the militants to lay down their arms or face further attacks.

But officials say more than a 1,000 others are still inside, and troops are standing by for a possible assault.

Despite a 24-hour curfew and reported cease-fire, sporadic gunfire could still be heard Wednesday near the radical Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque.

Power to the mosque was cut off, and Pakistani troops used armored vehicles and barbed wire to seal off the neighborhood.

Information Minister Tariq Azim says the government hopes to avoid an all-out confrontation.

"We still hope that common sense will prevail and that they will surrender, realizing that they have no other option left to them now," said Azim.

Clashes at the mosque on Tuesday left at least 11 people dead and much of the city under virtual martial law.

The fighting broke out after students, many armed with bamboo clubs and handguns, rushed toward a government security post.

Officials say the police were firing tear gas into the crowd when several students opened fire, killing at least one officer.

The bloody confrontation follows a standoff over the past several months between the mosque's pro-Taleban supporters and the Pakistani government.

Lal Masjid's leaders want to impose strict Islamic law, like that implemented by the Taleban government in Afghanistan a decade ago.

Its students have led a series of provocative raids into the city, including several kidnappings of local police and a number of alleged prostitutes.

The government has repeatedly threatened to retaliate but until Tuesday it always backed down in favor of negotiated settlements.

The conflict comes as Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf faces mounting political opposition ahead of elections expected later this year.

Many of his critics used the Lal Masjid stand off to highlight concerns that the government has failed to control religious extremists.

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