ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – President Gen. Pervez Musharraf on Monday gave clerics more time to persuade defiant militants to lay down their arms and surrender a mosque they have defended against thousands of government troops, security officials said.
The decision came at a high-level meeting grappling with how to crack the weeklong armed resistance at the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, in the heart of the capital.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said among the mediators would be Taqi Usmani, a former teacher of the besieged mosque's senior cleric, Abdul Rashid Ghazi.
Some clerics, including Usmani, have attempted without success to persuade Ghazi to end the siege peacefully since the crisis erupted. The government claims the mosque is being defended by wanted terrorists.
A group of about 20 lawmakers from radical religious parties were stopped by soldiers from approaching the mosque as intense gunfire again erupted in the area mid-afternoon. The group was attempting to also act as mediators.
A mosque spokesman, meanwhile, claimed hundreds of men and women died in a military assault on the mosque and adjoining Islamic school.
It was impossible to verify either claim in the escalating battle of gunfire and rhetoric between the government and the defenders of Islamabad's Red Mosque.
Musharraf sent in troops last 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 commando shot as the military blasted holes in the walls of the fortified compound. Officials said they hoped hundreds of students allegedly being held hostage in the mosque could use the gaps to escape.
The siege sparked an anti-government protest Monday by some 20,000 tribesmen, including hundreds of masked militants wielding assault rifles, in the northwest region of Bajur.
Many chanted "Death to Musharraf" and "Death to America" in a rally led by Maulana Faqir Mohammed, a cleric wanted by authorities and who is believed to be a close lieutenant of Al Qaeda No. 2 leader Ayman al-Zawahri.
"All of Musharraf's policies are against Islam and the country therefore he has become our enemy. He will not be spared and revenge will be taken against him for these atrocities," he said.
"Innocent scholars and students are being martyred, mosques are being ruined only to please America," he said.
Religious Affairs Minister Ejaz ul-Haq said terrorists, including a suspect in a plot against Pakistan's prime minister, 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-Qaida 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.
Journalists were being kept 500 yards away and security forces were blocking clerics hoping to mediate.
The local Geo television channel quoted an unnamed spokesman inside the mosque as saying 305 men and women had been killed in the Saturday night's assault.
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.