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Pak paramilitary officer killed as blasts rock mosque complex

Last updated on: July 08, 2007 21:23 IST

Pakistani security forces on Sunday suffered their first major casualty in the six-day stand off with extremists holed up in Lal Masjid with the killing of a Lieutenant Colonel while the cleric leading the resistance from the mosque claimed that 335 students had been killed.

President Pervez Musharraf and other top military officials attended the funeral of Lt Col Haroon-ul-Islam of the paramilitary Special Security Group, who was killed on Saturday night.

Officials said the officer died while attempting to rescue several women and children from the besieged mosque.

They said a Major was also injured. These are the first major casualties suffered by security forces ever since the stand off began on Tuesday.

Before that a paramilitary Ranger was killed when militants attempted to occupy the picket in front the mosque that set off the bloody confrontation.

Twenty-four people have died in the bloodletting so far, officials said.

Appearing undaunted, Deputy Administrator of the mosque Abdul Rashid Ghazi told the media in Islamabad that 335 persons were killed due to heavy firing from paramilitary forces.

Ghazi said that 310 female and 25 male students were killed in overnight bombing by security forces of the compound of Lal Masjid and the girls seminary Jamia Hafsa.

Army spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad denied the claim about casualties saying the shelling was aimed at cresting holes in the compound walls to allow the hostage students to flee.

Ghazi who interacts with the media over the phone from his bunker in the mosque said all the killed were buried in the mosque complex.

He claimed that roofs of two rooms where the students stayed collapsed on them causing heavy casualties.

The government, meanwhile said it would "continue to play the waiting game" despite Musharraf's ultimatum yesterday asking the extremists to surrender or die.

"We prefer to play the waiting game for the time being," Minister of State for Information, Tariq Aziz told reporters.

Interior Ministry spokesman said the forces did not use any heavy bombs and tried to blow holes in the walls.

Meanwhile state run PTV announced that 12 girls in mosque are on hunger strike. The women were kept in the basement. Three girls were shot dead when they tried to escape.

Reports also said over 200 women were being held hostage.

Ghazi, however, on Sunday again expressed willingness to give up if a special bench of the Supreme Court, which is currently hearing the petition of the suspended Chief Justice Iftikhar M Chaudhry, conducted trial against him and others.

Pakistan's Religious Affairs Minister, Ijazul Haq rejected Ghazi's "offer" saying that the cleric was inconsistent in his statements and the government wanted all of them to surrender and face charges.

Referring to Ghazi's insistence for safe passage, Haq, the son of former military ruler Zia ul Haq, told reporters, "If they are asking for safe passage I would like to ask which country is willing to accept them."

"How can the government afford to let them go as they will start all over again," he said, adding, "Afghanistan too would not accept them, then where else will they go."

Asked about suspicions regarding the involvement of Al Qaeda and Taliban, Haq said, "Ghazi himself is not in control. He himself is a hostage over there. These people who have a nasty background and they were involved in lot of incidents previously like bomb blasts."

He said people held up inside were not being allowed to come out because of fear that their identities would be released.

"I know they are as dangerous as Al Qaeda and they have been involved various activities. One of the persons killed on the second day was involved in previous terrorist incidents in Pakistan," he said but declined to reveal the identity.

Musharraf had recently said that militants of the banned Jaish-e-Muhammad were held up inside.

Haq also accused the militants of damaging the mosque.

Meanwhile, six persons were arrested near the mosque when they tried to escape from the besieged Lal Masjid, TV channels reported. The people were shifted to some unidentified location for interrogation.

There are more than 1,000 male and female students in Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa, Umm-e-Hassan, the principal of Jamia Hafsa and wife of Lal Masjid chief Maulana Abdul Aziz said.

She was arrested with Aziz, who was trying to escape in a burqa.

K J M Varma in Islamabad
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