Pakistani commandos stormed Islamabad's Red Mosque compound Tuesday, prompting a fierce firefight with militants accused of holding about 150 hostages inside. At least three soldiers and about 40 militants were killed, the army said.
After last-ditch efforts to negotiate a surrender failed, special forces assailed the compound in the heart of the Pakistani capital from three directions, army spokesman Gen. Waheed Arshad said.
Some 20 children who rushed toward the advancing troops were brought to safety, and 24 other fleeing people were captured by the security forces, he said, without giving further details of those trapped inside.
A military official, who spoke on condition of anonimity because he was not authorized to talk to the press, later said that 51 militants had surrendered or been captured.
Well-trained militants armed with machine guns, rocket launchers, hand grenades, small arms and gasoline bombs put up tough resistance from the basement of the mosque, and fired from its minarets. They also booby trapped parts of the adjoining madrassa, or religious school, he said.
Speaking about five hours after the assault started at around 4 a.m. (2300 GMT Monday), Arshad said the mosque itself had been cleared of militants, but resistance remained in parts of the compound. Gunfire and explosions still boomed over the city.
"Those who surrender will be arrested, but the others will be treated as combatants and killed," Arshad said.
The troops moved in a week after the outbreak of fighting between security forces and supporters of hardline clerics at the mosque, who had tried to impose Taliban-style rule in the capital through a six-month campaign of kidnappings and threats.
At least 67 people have been killed since July 3.
The vigilante anti-vice campaign, led by hardline clerics with alleged links to outlawed militant groups, has proved an embarrassment to President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, a key U.S.-ally in its war on terror, and underlined his administration's failure to control extremist religious schools.
A relief official said commandos were still facing resistance at the mosque's adjoining religious school for women.
"I am standing near the mosque, and I have been told that the commandos have cleared the mosque," said Abdul Sattar Edhi, head of the private Edhi Foundation. He said the troops had entered the school basement where an unknown number of militants were hiding.
"There is some resistance from them, but I think the operation will be over soon," he said.
Arshad that about 40 militants had been killed. Three special forces commandos were also killed and 15 wounded, he said.
The assault on compound, centered on one of Islamabad's most prominent mosques, began moments after a delegation led by a former prime minister left the area declaring that efforts to negotiate a peaceful end to the week-old siege had failed.
As they entered their vehicles, several explosions rang out across the city amid the sound of gunfire. Thick smoke rose from the mosque compound. More than 40 ambulances approached the area along with trucks carrying extra soldiers and ammunition. A helicopter circled overhead.
Rehmatullah Khalil, a senior cleric who was part of a 12-member government-appointed delegation of mediators, accused Musharraf of sabotaging a draft agreement that had been prepared after their talks with rebel leader Abdul Rashid Ghazi.
He said ex-premier Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain had prepared an accord under which Ghazi was to be briefly held in protective custody, and the government would agree to free the mosque's students. Only those being sought by police were to be detained.
"We were happy and hoping that the nation will hear a good news, but the government changed almost all clauses of the draft agreement," he told The Associated Press. "We were stunned on seeing changes in the draft agreement, and we don't know why the government did so."
"The government is responsible for today's bloodshed."
He said the Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz had given his consent to the draft agreement, but it was changed at the president's office.
Officials were not immediately available to comment on the claim. Although earlier, Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim said Ghazi had wanted everyone inside the compound to be freed.
"Ghazi wanted everyone free but there are some wanted people inside. We can't give any blanket relaxation," Azim said.
When Hussain and a delegation of Islamic clerics returned crestfallen from the mosque just before Tuesday, after about nine hours of talks with Ghazi via loudspeakers and cell phones, Hussain told reporters: "We offered him a lot, but he wasn't ready to come on our terms.
Officials said the mediators had negotiated by telephone and had not entered the mosque because of fears for their safety.
Ghazi told the private Geo TV network that his mother had been wounded by gunshot in the assault. There was no immediate official confirmation of his claim, although Arshad said none of the slain militants were women.
"The government is using full force. This is naked aggression," Ghazi told Geo soon after the assault began. "My martyrdom is certain now."
Arshad said he had no information on whether Ghazi had been injured or killed.
As the fighting roiled on, emergency workers at an army cordon waited for access to the compound. Women police officers were on standby to handle any female survivors or casualties.
About two dozen relatives of people trapped inside the complex waited anxiously at the cordon.
Zahid Mahmood, who has waited four days for word on his brother, a 20-year-old religious student named Suhail, was heard calling home on cell phone: "There is no hope that I can find Suhail because there are many explosions, people are saying the building has collapsed and there are many killed."
"But still I wish I could find my brother alive," Mahmood told his relatives.
The government has said wanted terrorists were organizing the defense of the mosque, while Ghazi has accused security forces of killing scores of students.
The siege has given the G-6 district of Pakistan's grid-plan capital the look of a war zone, with troops manning machine guns behind sandbagged posts and from the top of armored vehicles.
It has also sparked anger in Pakistan's restive northwest frontier. On Monday, 20,000 tribesmen, including hundreds of masked militants wielding assault rifles, held a protest in the frontier region of Bajur, where many chanted "Death to Musharraf."