Defiant Cleric of Besieged Mosque Says Troops Have Killed 70 Students

President Gen. Pervez Musharraf warned Saturday that hold-outs in a radical mosque would be killed if they didn't emerge from the compound which has been under siege by thousands of government troops.

"People hiding in Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) should come out, otherwise they will get killed. Action will be taken against them if they do not come out," Musharraf was quoted as saying by Pakistan Television in what was his first public statement on the siege.

Explosions and intense gunfire continued overnight and Saturday as troops ringing the mosque attempted to end the five-day standoff but held back from an all-out assault.

Although the government says only 19 people have died since Tuesday, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the mosque's defiant cleric, told the local Geo television channel that more than 70 of his students had been slain by government gunfire. He said his followers preferred martyrdome to capture.

"There are 70 to 80 bodies of our students," he said in a claim which could not be independently verified.

The siege has added to the risks facing Musharraf, who must cope with a gathering storm of domestic Islamic extremism as well as a popular backlash from his bungled attempt at firing the country's chief justice.

Authorities Saturday were also investigating a possible assassination attempt against him, after shots were fired as Musharraf's plane took off from a military base near the capital.

Musharraf was flying from Chaklala Air Base in Rawalpindi on Friday morning when shots rang out from a neighborhood that lies directly under the flight path, officials and witnesses said.

If confirmed, the attack would be at least the fourth attempt on Musharraf's life since his decision to side with the United States in its war on terror enraged Taliban and Al Qaeda-linked radicals in Pakistan.

It was not clear whether the incident was linked to the siege, but street protests organized by radical Islamic groups have been staged daily since the government began its strike against the mosque Tuesday.

Troops surrounded the mosque and an adjoining women's seminary after tensions between government security forces and Islamic students — who have sought to impose Taliban-style rule in the city — erupted into deadly street clashes.

Militant students had streamed out of the mosque Tuesday to confront security forces deployed there following 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.

While more than 1,200 people, mainly students from the mosque's two Islamic schools, have fled the complex, officials say up to 100 armed militants and an unknown number of students remain inside.

Ghazi, who has sought safe passage for himself and his followers, reiterated Saturday that he would not surrender.

"We are ready to lay down arms, but we should not be arrested," he said, adding, "We are ready to be martyred."

Pakistan's Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao rejected the conditional surrender offer, insisting that Ghazi would have to face the courts.

As the confrontation approached its 100th hour Saturday, a dozen loud explosions rocked the area near the mosque and security officials deployed there said they were continuing to demolish sections of the mosque's perimeter.

Gunfire was also heard as a delegation of clerics headed towards the mosque to meet with Ghazi and convince him to surrender, according to Shah Abdul Aziz, a lawmaker who is closely associated with the cleric.

Syed Bilal, one of the delegates, told newsmen that Ghazi was ready to meet with them but that security officials had stopped them from going inside because of the intense gunfire.

After Bilal insisted on going inside the mosque, police pushed him into a car and sped away, said Samia Qazi, a woman lawmaker who was at the scene. She condemned the police action, blaming the government for not allowing the clerics a role in ending the standoff.

Several female lawmakers from extremist parties rallied near the Parliament building Saturday, urging the government to hold talks with Ghazi to peacefully resolve the issue.

They also asked that women and children be allowed to leave the mosque.

Before dawn, police seized control of one of Ghazi's seminaries in another area of Islamabad.

The action against the Jamia Faridia seminary in an upscale neighborhood was taken on government orders, a senior police officer, Mohammed Idress, said.