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Pakistan Mosque Leader Vows to Continue Standoff


Pakistani commandos blasted new holes in the walls around an Islamabad mosque where armed militants are reportedly holding hundreds of women and children hostage. Officials say they hope at least some of the people inside will be able to escape through the holes. But as VOA Correspondent Benjamin Sand reports from Islamabad, the militant leader in the mosque vows to continue the standoff that began Tuesday.

Cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi says he and his supporters inside the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, would rather die than surrender.

The pro-Taleban leader released a statement saying he hoped his death would provoke an Islamic revolution throughout Pakistan.

On Saturday, President Pervez Musharraf issued a blunt ultimatum to the mosque's leaders.

He says the government, until now, has been patient. But he says anyone still inside the mosque should come out and surrender, and if they do not, they will be killed.

More than 1,000 people have come forward since Tuesday, but officials say hundreds more remain inside.

Around 50 or 60 well-armed militants are thought to be in control and may be preventing hundreds of women and children from leaving the mosque.

Thousands of troops have surrounded the compound and scores of ambulances have been pre-positioned nearby.

Explosions and gunfire continued throughout the night and early Sunday.

An elite Pakistani commando was killed during the latest operation as officials used dynamite to blast holes in the mosque's outer walls.

The militants' leader says no one is being held against their will and says at least 70 people in the mosque have died.

Government officials have rejected Ghazi's claims, but insist the radical cleric will be held accountable for anyone who has been killed during the standoff.

Lal Masjid has openly and repeatedly defied the government's authority in recent months. Ghazi has been a vocal supporter of Osama bin Laden and recently vowed to impose a Taleban-style Sharia law in the capital.

The bloody stand off erupted as President Musharraf faced mounting domestic opposition before national elections expected later this year. But public opinion has swung solidly behind the president and newspaper editorials have strongly backed the government's action against the hard-line mosque.

Cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi says he and his supporters inside the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, would rather die than surrender.

The pro-Taleban leader released a statement Sunday saying he hoped his death would provoke an Islamic revolution throughout Pakistan.

On Saturday, President Pervez Musharraf issued a blunt ultimatum to the mosque's leaders.

He says anyone inside the mosque should come out and surrender, and if they do not, they will be killed.

Thousands of troops have surrounded the mosque. Explosions and gunfire continued throughout the night and early Sunday.

An elite Pakistani commando was killed during the latest operation as officials struggle to free women and children they say are being held hostage in the mosque.

The militants' leader says no one is being held against their will and says at least 70 people in the mosque have died.

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