Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf, a close ally of US President George W. Bush, backed off from plans to storm a mosque controlled by militants in the heart of Pakistan's capital Islamabad, deciding that a negotiated solution to the standoff is still possible.
The siege of the Red Mosque, whose leaders have sought to impose Taliban style rule in Islamabad, is proving a rallying point for at least some of Mr. Musharraf's Islamist opponents, the Associated Press reports.
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-Qaida 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.
Reuters reports that Pakistani soldiers fired tear gas into the Red Mosque compound and traded gunfire with an estimated 200 to 500 militants inside late on Monday, but there was "no sign of an imminent assault."
The mosque has an attached school for girls, and the government is worried about the fallout from an assault that could result in the deaths of many unarmed women and children. At least 21 people have died in the violence, and government forces have tried to give women and children a chance to evacuate the compound.
A woman who feared her daughter had been killed and buried inside the compound waited with around a dozen other anxious parents behind barbed wire barriers. "I request the law enforcement agencies to let me go
inside. I can go alone, and I know nobody will fire from inside. I know these people very well," Asia Bibi said, adding she wanted to discover her daughter's fate for herself.
There are concerns some children have been either coerced or persuaded to stay behind to act as human shields.
The Los Angeles Times reports that Pakistani authorities are denying claims made by Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the cleric leading the militants inside the mosque, that 300 of his followers have been killed by the security forces.
Pakistan's leading English language newspaper, The Dawn, reports that a helicopter flyover of the compound on Sunday revealed no signs of dead or injured students. The paper also says the government is being pressured by clerics to promise freedom to Mr. Ghazi in exchange for surrender, but the government is ruling that out.
Interior Minister Aftab Sharpao told reporters that the government would never provide a safe passage to Maulana Ghazi. He said the government was avoiding an attack on the mosque in order to save the lives of innocent students who had been made hostage by hardcore militants.
Talking to Dawn, Interior Secretary Syed Kamal Shah said that at least 15 suicide bombers were present in the mosque and they had been given explosive belts. "We also have information that militants have heavy
ammunition, landmines and rocket launchers," he said.
The British Broadcasting Corp. carries a profile of Abdul Rashid Ghazi, describing him as once having a "relatively westernized lifestyle" when he worked for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
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