Fears deepened Sunday about the fate of hostages reportedly being held by Islamic militants inside a besieged radical mosque in the heart of this capital.
Meanwhile, as Pakistani troops encircled the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, for a sixth day, the cleric in charge declared that he hoped the standoff, which has left at least two dozen people dead, would help trigger an Islamic revolution in Pakistan.
It was unclear how many people were inside the mosque complex, which contains two madrasas, or seminaries, one each for men and women, with an enrollment of about 5,000 students. About 1,200 people have surrendered to authorities, but the number of those leaving the mosque has slowed to a trickle.
Some students who emerged from the compound have said a hard-core group of about 50 militants is preventing hundreds of people, including women and children, from leaving.
The army has been blasting holes in the wall of the compound to provide escape routes, and the sound of explosions echoed again Sunday through the well-kept residential neighborhood where the mosque is located.
The government, which has described the ringleaders as “terrorists” affiliated with radical Pakistani groups, says it has held off on a full-scale assault out of concern for those being held against their will.
Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who took over as the mosque’s chief cleric after his cleric brother, Abdul Aziz, was seized last week while trying to slip out of the compound in women’s clothes, said security forces had killed 300 of his followers.
Authorities dismissed that claim.
Abdul Rashid Ghazi was quoted in Pakistani newspapers Sunday as saying that he and his followers hoped their “martyrdom” would inspire a wider fight against the government.
However, the standoff has not generated significant support even from hard-line religious parties, and most people seem to approve of the government’s decision to move against the mosque.
“We have unyielding belief in God that our blood will create a revolution,” Ghazi wrote in a commentary published in several newspapers.
Although the mosque standoff erupted into violence only last week, the confrontation has been brewing for months. In February, female students took over a public library next to their madrasa, and in the last few months, other students have embarked on a Taliban-style anti-vice campaign in the capital, raiding video stores and abducting alleged prostitutes.
The Ghazi brothers are declared enemies of the United States and of the government of President Pervez Musharraf, an important ally of the Bush administration in the war in Afghanistan.
Musharraf has said the radicals inside the mosque must surrender or die. But authorities also appeared to hope that the long days of siege, and depriving those inside of electricity during the sweltering summer, might prompt the holdouts to give up.
Special correspondent Zaidi reported from Islamabad and Times staff writer King from Istanbul, Turkey.