ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Security forces besieging a radical mosque in the Pakistani capital captured its top cleric Wednesday as he tried to sneak out of the complex in a woman’s burqa, and more than 1,000 of his followers surrendered.
But heavy gunfire raged into the night, and it was unclear if his capture would lead other hard-liners to give up the fight.
President Gen. Pervez Musharraf deployed the army to subdue the militants holed up at Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, whose clerics have boldly challenged the government for months with a drive to impose a Taliban-style version of Islamic law in Islamabad.
Several explosions were heard near the mosque early Thursday, but their cause wasn’t immediately clear. Troops ringing the mosque pushed reporters far back from the area.
The peaceful arrest of the mosque’s prayer leader, Maulana Abdul Aziz, was a coup for the government. The firebrand Aziz has been a vociferous opponent of Musharraf and threatened suicide attacks to defend the mosque. His students have been at the forefront of anti-government and anti-U.S. rallies.
Tensions exploded into a daylong battle Tuesday between security forces and militant students, some heavily armed and masked. Officials said 16 people died, including militants, security officers and bystanders. Mosque leaders put the death toll among just students at 20.
The government ordered the militants to lay down their arms and surrender by Wednesday morning.
A security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to journalists, said Aziz was captured when he tried to get away disguised as a woman, wearing a full-length black burqa, and a female police officer tried to search him.
The officer began shouting “This is not a woman,” the official said, prompting male officers to seize Aziz. “The suspect later turned out to be the mosque’s chief cleric,” the official said.
An AP Television News cameraman saw plainclothes police bundling the gray-bearded cleric into the back of a car, which sped away.
Javed Iqbal Cheeman, an Interior Ministry official, said Aziz’s wife, the principal of the mosque’s religious school, was also arrested.
“The entire operation will end in further success, and we will be able to give you and the nation more good news,” Deputy Interior Minister Zafar Iqbal Warriach said.
He said the whereabouts of the mosque’s deputy leader, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who is Aziz’s brother, was unclear. Ghazi said earlier Wednesday that “we will continue to defend ourselves.”
Cheema said at least 1,100 people surrendered during the day, with some of the women in tears. All women and children will be granted amnesty, but males involved in killings and the top mosque leaders will face legal action, Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim said.
Cheema claimed that “not many more” people were left inside the mosque complex.
One who decided to give up, 15-year-old Maryam Qayyeum, said those who stayed in the seminary “only want martyrdom.”
“They are happy,” she said. “They don’t want to go home.”
Qayyeum said mosque leaders were not trying to stop students from giving up. But her mother, who had come to take her home, disputed that “They are making speeches. They want to incite them,” she said of the leaders.
Over the past six months, the Red Mosque clerics have challenged the government by sending students to kidnap alleged prostitutes and police in an anti-vice campaign.
The bloodshed has added to a sense of crisis in Pakistan, where Musharraf – a major ally of President Bush – already faces emboldened militants near the Afghan border and a democracy movement triggered by his botched attempt to fire the country’s chief justice.
The mosque siege sparked street protests Tuesday in the cities of Lahore and Quetta organized by radical religious parties.
On Wednesday, officials said a suicide car bomber rammed a vehicle into a Pakistan army convoy near the Afghan border, killing five soldiers and five civilians. In northwestern Pakistan, unidentified assailants fired a rocket at a police station, killing one officer and wounding four, and an explosive killed four people and injured two district officials.
It was not known if the incidents were linked to the mosque crisis.
Associated Press reporters Sadaqat Jan and Stephen Graham in Islamabad and Riaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.