ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Terrorists wanted for attacks in Pakistan and beyond are leading the resistance against troops besieging a radical Islamic seminary, the government said Sunday, while a mosque spokesman claimed hundreds died in an overnight assault.
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.
Sporadic gunfire erupted again Monday morning as President Gen. Pervez Musharraf called a high-level meeting to discuss the siege.
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 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.
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 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.
Journalists are kept 500 yards away and security forces are 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 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.