ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Terrorists wanted for attacks in Pakistan and beyond are leading fierce resistance against troops besieging Islamabad's Red Mosque, the government said Sunday, while a mosque spokesman claimed hundreds of people died in an overnight assault.
President Gen. Pervez Musharraf sent in troops on Wednesday, a day after supporters of the mosque's radical clerics fought gunbattles with security forces sent to contain their campaign to impose Taliban-style rule in the capital.
At least 24 people have died so far, including a special forces commander shot during overnight operation to blast holes in the walls of the fortified compound.
Musharraf vowed on Saturday to kill the militants in the mosque if they didn't surrender.
However, on Sunday, the gunfire and explosions that echoed across the city for much of the night gave way to an intensifying war of words between the government and the mosque's defenders.
Religious Affairs Minister Ejaz ul-Haz said terrorists, including a suspect in a plot against Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, were in control of the mosque.
"I can only tell you they are involved in many terrorist activities inside and outside" Pakistan, ul-Haq said. "And there are a few who are very renowned, very well known, more well known than Al Qaeda and the Taliban."
Ul-Haq provided no details. However, Musharraf has said members of Jaish-e-Mohammed, a radical group involved in fighting Indian rule in Kashmir and with links to Al Qaeda, was involved.
A military official who said he was not allowed to speak on the record said intercepts of telephone calls from the mosque indicated the defenders also had links to Harkat Jihad-e-Islami.
Some members of Harkat have been suspected of involvement in the killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Karachi in 2002, and in a bombing the same year in the city that killed 11 French engineers.
"The very fact that they can use heavy automatic weapons with some expertise shows that they are not just ordinary 14, 15-year-old students," government spokesman Tariq Azim said.
It was impossible to check the government's claims. Journalists have been pushed back 500 yards from the scene and security forces have prevented clerics hoping to mediate from reaching the mosque.
Mosque leaders laid out an unverifiable claim of their own.
The local Geo television channel quoted an unnamed spokesman inside the mosque as saying 305 men and women had been killed in the overnight assaults.
Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the mosque's leader, had said he and his followers prefer martyrdom to surrender. He also said dozens of his followers were already killed before that raid.
Ul-Haq dismissed his claims as propaganda, and challenged Ghazi to allow ambulances to come and take away the bodies of the dead.
The army said a lieutenant colonel commanding a battalion from the Special Services Group died while supervising an operation to blow more holes in the mosque compound's outer wall. Three more soldiers from the unit, which Musharraf once commanded, were injured.
Photographs taken from a helicopter on Sunday showed several breaches in the walls, and officials said they hoped hundreds of students allegedly being held hostage in the mosque could use the gaps to escape.
A relative of one of the alleged hostages told The Associated Press that armed men were holding about 250 people in an area of the mosque's basement where the faithful wash before prayers.
Bakht Sher said he spoke with his 22-year-old nephew, Noorul Hayat, by mobile phone Sunday morning.
The government says the militants are armed with assault rifles, grenades, petrol bombs and other weaponry, and Azim suggested there would be no quick end to the siege.
"So long as there are people inside who are holding innocent children and women hostages, we have to be very careful. If we wanted to barge in guns blazing, we could have done it on day one," he said on Dawn News television.
"We will have to play this wait game. It may take a while, but I think we will succeed in the end," he said.