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Militant Cleric, 60 Others Killed at Pakistan's Besieged Red Mosque


Pakistani security forces stormed Islamabad's Red Mosque Tuesday more than a week after hundreds of militants barricaded themselves inside. The operation began just before dawn Tuesday after negotiations broke down. From Islamabad, VOA correspondent Benjamin Sand reports at least eight soldiers and around 60 militants have been killed, including radical cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi.

Huge explosions rocked Islamabad's Red Mosque early Tuesday morning as security forces blasted their way into the heavily armed compound.

Thousands of soldiers battled militant forces for more than 13 hours in the heart of Pakistan's normally sedate capital. Officials say the mosque's firebrand cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi was killed along with around 60 other militants.

Hundreds of women and children remained unaccounted for following government warnings that many may have been used as human shields.

Military spokesman Major-General Waheed Arshad said the mosque's gunmen were fully prepared and mounted a strong resistance, forcing a much longer than expected operation.

"The militants are using all kinds of weapons," he said. "They have machine guns. They have rocket launchers. They have been using grenades."

The government says at least 70 women and children have been rescued and another 70 militants taken into custody.

Ambulances ferried scores of wounded to nearby hospitals throughout the day, while the terrified parents of students trapped inside waited for information about their loved ones.

The bloody standoff began last Tuesday after the mosque's radical students clashed with local security forces.

Lal Masjid, or the Red Mosque, has been a well-known source of Islamic militancy and its supporters recently pushed to impose a strict Islamic law on the capital.

In a written statement released Sunday, Ghazi said he hoped his death would spark a nationwide Islamic revolution in Pakistan.

The military assault came less than an hour after government negotiators said they had failed to end the seven-day standoff. The militant leaders reportedly refused to give up a demand for complete amnesty and safe passage out of Islamabad.

Government officials say there were a number of foreign terrorists, including several with possible ties to al-Qaida, are inside the mosque.

The standoff was widely regarded as a major political embarrassment for Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, who is a key U.S. ally in the war against terror.

Moderates accuse President Musharraf of allowing religious extremists to gain a powerful foothold throughout Pakistan.

Those critics were largely silenced during this week's siege, but there are already fresh concerns that the capital's unrest could spark a much wider militant backlash in other parts of the country.

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