ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – The head of a radical mosque besieged by government forces in the heart of Pakistan's capital rejected calls for an unconditional surrender Friday, saying he and his die-hard followers were ready for martyrdom.
As the siege of the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, entered the third day, troops rocked the complex with gunfire and explosions but appeared to be holding back from a potentially bloody final assault.
"We will not surrender. We will be martyred, but we will not surrender," Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the top-ranking cleric holed up inside the mosque complex, told a television station. "We are more determined now."
The government was keen to avoid a bloodbath that would further damage President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's embattled administration, and said troops would not storm the mosque while women and children were inside.
"For the Pakistan army to go in is no problem, but safety is our foremost objective," government spokesman Tariq Azim said. "We don't want to harm any innocent lives. We already know that these people are being kept as hostages."
Azim told Dawn News Television that Ghazi's talk about martyrdom was a bluff, noting his brother Maulana Abdul Aziz, who had headed the mosque, said the same thing and then was arrested trying to sneak out of the complex disguised as a woman.
Troops surrounded the mosque on Wednesday, a day after tensions between government security forces and mosque followers -- who have sought to impose Taliban-style rule in the city -- erupted into deadly street clashes. The violence has killed 19 people.
Militant students had streamed out of the mosque Tuesday to confront security forces sent there after the kidnapping of six alleged Chinese prostitutes.
The brief abduction drew a protest from Beijing, and proved to be the last straw following a string of provocations by the mosque stretching back six months.
Two dozen parents and other family members waited anxiously Friday behind security barriers about 200 meters (yards) from the mosque, with about 10 allowed to approach the shrine's entrance.
During lulls in the fighting, some parents have approached the mosque, handed notes to those inside with the names of their children, who have then emerged. More than 1,100 have fled the complex, most of them young male and female students at the mosque's seminaries.
Six young men who had emerged from the mosque, two of them barefoot, were rounded up by troops and taken away. It was not immediately known if they were suspected of being among the hard-core militants in the mosque.
Eight had been similarly seized Thursday and taken from the scene.
Authorities relaxed a curfew imposed around the mosque for a few hours on Friday so that residents could buy supplies and check on relatives.
Gunfire rang out around the mosque before dawn and again later Friday morning. Armed troops and barbed wire coils on the streets near the mosque prevented journalists from going near the scene.
There were no immediate reports of injuries, and it was not possible to determine who initiated the latest bout of shooting.
Azim told Dawn News television that soldiers had blasted holes in walls of the mosque's fortress-like compound "so that if they bolted the door, to at least give a chance to people to be able to escape through those holes."
In an interview with GEO TV, Ghazi denied that he was holding students as hostages and rejected suggestions that hard-core militants had taken over the defense of the mosque.
The Minister for Religious Affairs Ijazul Haq said in a televised interview Friday that "militants" were in command, and that Ghazi was just being used for "media management."
He said indirect negotiations were proceeding, with clerics trying to persuade Ghazi to give up.
Ghazi told GEO television Thursday night that he and his followers were willing to lay down their arms and end the standoff, on the condition that they not be arrested. Officials rejected the offer, demanding "total, unconditional surrender."
Officials have said the holdouts were armed with automatic weapons, hand grenades, explosives and homemade gasoline bombs. Azim said some of those fleeing had claimed the compound was mined.
The violence brought to a head a six-month standoff between Pakistan's U.S.-backed government and its top cleric, Aziz, who challenged Musharraf with an anti-vice campaign that has included kidnapping alleged prostitutes and police officers.
Aziz was caught Wednesday as he tried to escape the complex dressed as a woman.
Azim said Ghazi might follow his brother's footsteps rather than go down fighting.
"The same thing has been said by his elder brother, the chief cleric, and see what he did: went out in a burqa and high heels. So I don't know how long this hollow rhetoric of Mr. Ghazi's will continue. I think if he has got any sense and any humanity left in him, he would let these women and children go," Azim said.