Pakistani Police Battle Religious Militants in Islamabad

Pakistani security forces say time is running out for more than 1,000 militants inside Islamabad's radical Lal Masjid or Red Mosque. Powerful blasts and machine gunfire could be heard around the mosque throughout the day. The mosque's chief cleric, captured Wednesday, urged his supporters to either escape or surrender. VOA correspondent Benjamin Sand reports from the capital.

The firebrand cleric Abdul Aziz was arrested Wednesday evening as he tried to sneak out of the mosque apparently disguised as a woman.

He appeared on state-run television Thursday morning still wearing the flowing black burqa he had tried to escape in.

Aziz, who previously bragged about meeting terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden, remained defiant throughout the interview.

He said Lal Masjid's supporters had in his words "love and sympathy" for jidahist groups but rejected allegations that the mosque was directly connected to any armed militants.

Aziz said around 900 people were still inside the mosque, most of them women.

He says there are only around 10 to 15 machine guns in the mosque and several gas masks that he says were provided by unspecified "friends".

The Pakistani army has surrounded the mosque since Tuesday when bloody clashes between government security forces and student militants left at least 16 people dead and more than 150 others wounded.

Hundreds of students have accepted a government amnesty but officials say time is running out for those who remain.

The head of Pakistan's crisis management office, Brigadeer Javed Iqbal Cheema told reporters Thursday that any additional casualties would be the direct responsibility of Abdul Aziz's brother, Ghazi, who is still leading the resistance inside the mosque.

"He has to surrender. He is a criminal, he has to come and surrender before the government unconditionally," Cheema said.

Lal Masjid has been at the center of a months-long standoff with government security forces after the two brothers vowed to impose strict Taleban-style Islamic law.

Their supporters launched a controversial anti-vice campaign and recently briefly kidnapped several police officers and alleged prostitutes from mainland China.

The conflict comes as Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf faces mounting political opposition ahead of national elections expected later this year.

Many of his critics used the Lal Masjid confrontation to highlight concerns that the government has failed to control the country's religious extremists.