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Pakistani Authorities Search for Explosives Left Behind in Red Mosque

Pakistani officials say the fight to clear Islamabad's Red Mosque of well-armed militants is complete. From Islamabad VOA Correspondent Benjamin Sand reports the bloody siege left at least nine soldiers and 50 militants dead, including the mosque's radical leader, Abdul Rashid Ghazi.

For the first time in over a week Pakistan's capital city was largely silent Wednesday.

By early evening, officials said the battle to clear the radical Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, was effectively over.

Military spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad told reporters security forces are now focusing on clearing the area of any potential explosives.

"We don't want unexploded grenades or mines or any other explosives lying around so this area needs to be thoroughly cleansed and sanitized, so that is the second phase of the operation," he said.

Militants reportedly defended the mosque with machine guns, rocket launchers and grenades.

Arshad says land mines and other explosive devices were also planted throughout much of the compound.

He said at least nine soldiers and around 50 militants were killed during the two-day assault, which authorities called "Operation Silence."

He said soldiers are still working their way through the sprawling complex and a final death toll is not yet available. He said there are no reports of any women or children being killed, despite earlier claims that the militants were hiding behind human shields.

State Minister of Information Tariq Azim says those in the mosque put up "a much stiffer resistance than expected."

"They were hardened militants," he said. "One could tell they were very well trained. It seems they had prepared for this for a long time."

More than 80 people have died since the bloody standoff began last Tuesday.

Azim says around 1,300 people fled the mosque before military operations began. The government says a number of "hardcore" terrorists with possible links to al-Qaida remained inside.

The Red Mosque was widely regarded as a center of Islamic militancy, and its leaders repeatedly challenged the government's authority in recent months.

Students from the mosque's religious school, or Madrassa, led a controversial anti-vice campaign in the city, kidnapping alleged prostitutes and threatening shops that sold music.

The standoff was widelseen as a key test for Pakistan's moderate president, General Pervez Musharraf, who previously vowed to crack down on religious extremists.

Public opinion Wednesday remained generally pro-Musharraf, and newspaper editorials widely praised the government assault.

But officials say the government is bracing for a possible militant backlash, especially along the border with Afghanistan, where the mosque's pro-Taleban leaders had many supporters.