ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) – President Gen. Pervez Musharraf threatened Saturday to kill militant followers of an Islamic cleric who said he and his comrades prefer death to surrender of their beseiged mosque, ringed with thousands of government troops.
The soldiers in the heart of the capital again held back from an all-out assault, and Musharraf said he hoped to ensure the safety of women and children his interior minister described as hostages.
“Those who are inside Lal Masjid should surrender, otherwise they will get killed,” Musharraf told reporters in his first public statement on the siege.
The cleric, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, a former civil servant whose students have sought to impose Taliban-style rule in the city, says he and his followers prefer martyrdom to the unconditional surrender demanded by the government.
“No one can fight the power of the government, but the problem is that there are women and children inside,” Musharraf said while inspecting a flood-ravaged area of southwestern Pakistan.
As he spoke authorities were investigating whether shots fired as Musharraf’s plane took off from a nearby military base were an attempt on his life. It was not known whether the possible assassination bid was linked to the mosque crisis.
The president was flying from Chaklala Air Base in Rawalpindi Friday when shots rang out from a neighborhood in 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-Qaida-linked radicals in Pakistan.
But Musharraf faces other risks, including the ongoing stand-off, a gathering storm of domestic Islamic extremism and a popular backlash from his bungled attempt at firing the country’s chief justice.
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was overthrown in the bloodless coup that brought Musharraf to power, called Saturday for his resignation.
“He must quit, otherwise the nation of 160 million people of Pakistan will force him to step down,” Sharif said at an opposition conference in London, citing instability in the country.
In the mosque standoff, the government says 19 people have died since Tuesday, but Ghazi told the local Geo television channel more than 70 of his students had been slain by government gunfire. The claim could not be independently verified.
Troops surrounded the mosque and an adjoining women’s seminary after tensions between government security forces and Islamic students erupted into deadly street clashes.
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.
Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao accused the 43-year-old Ghazi of holding women and children against their will, something he denies.
“He (Ghazi) has taken these people hostage … He will be responsible for any harm to the people inside,” Sherpao said.
Ghazi said his followers were willing to lay down their arms but on condition that neither he nor they are arrested.
As the confrontation approached its 100th hour Saturday, a dozen loud explosions rocked the area and security officials said they demolishing parts of the mosque’s perimeter.
Syed Bilal, who was among a delegation of clerics hoping to persuade Ghazi to surrender, said security officials stopped them from entering the mosque because of intense gunfire.
After Bilal insisted on going inside, police pushed him into a car and sped away, said Samia Qazi, a female lawmaker who was there at the time. She blamed the government for not allowing the clerics a role in ending the standoff.