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Military Siege of Radical Pakistani Mosque Intensifies

The military siege of a radical mosque in the Pakistani capital intensified, after the group's chief cleric says he would rather die than surrender. As VOA correspondent Benjamin Sand reports from Islamabad, reports that the President Musharraf's plane was fired on Friday morning has underscored the sense of national crisis in Pakistan.

Government officials Friday initially denied and then sought to downplay reports of a possible assassination attempt on President Pervez Musharraf.

Speaking to reporters Friday evening, Interior Ministry spokesman Syed Kamal Shah dismissed eyewitness claims the president's plane was nearly hit by a anti-aircraft missile as it took off outside the capital.

He says police have recovered three weapons outside the airbase but only one had been used and he said no rockets had been fired.

Officials say President Pervez Musharraf landed safely in southern Pakistan, where he spoke to victims or recent floods.

The attack came as Pakistani troops continued their assault on a group of armed radical students holed up in the Lal Masjid, or red mosque. Security forces say they are bracing for a possibly bloody conclusion to the four-day drama.

The Pakistani army has surrounded the mosque since Tuesday when clashes between government security forces and student militants left at least sixteen people dead and more than 150 others wounded.

The mosque's chief cleric, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, told local media Thursday night that he would never give in to the government assault.

The head of Pakistan's crisis management office, Brigadeer Javed Iqbal Cheema said late Thursday that Ghazi's only choice was a full and unconditional surrender.

He says anyone who does surrender will have to be dealt with in accordance with law.

Police have already filed a series of criminal charges against Ghazi, including kidnapping and possible cases of terrorism.

Earlier, more than 1,000 students accepted a government amnesty but officials say around 900 people including women and children are still inside.

Pakistan's interior Minister Aftab Sherpao says most are being held against their will by a much smaller group of hardcore and heavily armed militants.

Lal Masjid has been at the center of a months long stand off with government security forces after Ghazi and his brother, Abdul Azziz vowed to impose a strict Taleban style Islamic law in the capital.

Their supporters repeatedly challenged the government's authority through a series of provocative raids into the city.

Armed students kidnapped several policemen last month and briefly held hostage a number of alleged prostitutes.

Pakistani moderates accused President Musharraf, who is seeking reelection later this year, of failing to confront religious extremists.