ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Pakistani troops seized Islamambad's Red Mosque on Tuesday and attempted to flush out the remaining militants entrenched inside a women's religious school in fierce fighting that left at least 50 militants and eight soldiers dead, the army said.
The troops stormed the mosque compound before dawn. Eight hours later, they were still trying to root out the well-armed defenders said to be holding about 150 hostages. Officials said at least 50 women were allowed to go free from the complex. Some 26 children had earlier escaped.
Clashes this month between security forces and supporters of the mosque's hardline clerics prompted the siege. The religious extremists had been trying to impose Taliban-style morality in the capital through a six-month campaign of kidnappings and threats. At least 67 people have been killed since July 3.
Amid the sounds of rolling explosions, commandos attacked from three directions about 4 a.m. and quickly cleared the ground floor of the mosque, army spokesman Gen. Waheed Arshad said. Some 20 children who rushed toward the advancing troops were brought to safety, he said.
Two dozen others fleeing were captured by security forces, Arshad said, without giving further details about those trapped inside. Another 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.
The officer said troops had cornered the mosque's chief cleric, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, in the basement of the school but held back from an all-out assault because a number of children were being held there as hostages.
Troops demanded four times that he surrender but his followers responded with gunfire and Ghazi said he was ready to die rather than give up, the officer said.
The government, eager to avoid a bloodbath that would damage President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's embattled administration, had earlier said it would not storm the mosque so long as women and children remained inside.
The mosque itself has been cleared of the militants - who are armed with machine guns, rocket launchers and gasoline bombs. They put up tough resistance from the basement of the mosque, Arshad said, adding rebels also fired from minarets and booby trapped some areas. "Those who surrender will be arrested, but the others will be treated as combatants and killed," he said.
Pakistan's Religious Affairs Minister Mohammed Ijaz ul-Haq - quoting the mosque's leader - said foreign militants were among the defenders. He did not give the numbers or their nationalities.
The assault began minutes after a delegation led by a former prime minister left the area declaring that efforts to negotiate a peaceful end to a week-old siege had failed.
An associate of the mosque's chief cleric, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, told the private Geo Television network that troops had seized the mosque but that resistance was continuing from inside the religious school.
The assault was signaled by blasts and gunfire. About three and a half hours after the assault started, Arshad said 50 to 60 percent of the complex had been "cleared" but resistance continued in "various places."
Some 40 militants had been killed and between 15 to 20 had been wounded. Arshad said three special forces commandos were also killed and 15 wounded.
Ghazi told Geo TV that his mother had been wounded by gunshot. There was no immedidate official confirmation of his claim but one of Ghazi's aides, Abdul Rahman, later said she had died.
"The government is using full force. This is naked aggression," he said. "My martyrdom is certain now."
He said that about 30 militants were resisting security forces but were only armed with 14 AK-47 assault rifles.
As the fighting roiled on, emergency workers at an army cordon waiting for access to the compound. Women police officers were on standby to handle any female survivors or casualties.
A senior civilian official said troops had arrested dozens of people inside the compound and that part of the madrassa had caught fire. The official requested anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to media.
Tuesday attack followed a botched commando raid on the high-walled mosque compound over the weekend.
On Monday, Musharraf assigned ex-premier Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain to try and negotiate a peaceful end to the standoff.
But Hussain and a delegation of Islamic clerics returned crestfallen from the mosque before dawn Tuesday after about nine hours of talks with rebel leader Abdul Rashid Ghazi via loudspeakers and cell phones.
"We offered him a lot, but he wasn't ready to come on our terms," Hussain told reporters waiting at the edge of the army cordon.
Rehmatullah Khalil, a senior cleric who was part of a 12-member delegation of mediators, accused Musharraf of sabotaging a draft agreement to end the siege.
He said Hussain had prepared an agreement under which Ghazi was to be briefly held in protective custody, and the government would agree to free the 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."
Hussain rejected the claim that the president's office had made changes to the draft.
"No this is not correct," he said.
Ul-Haq said the negotiations broke down on the issue of what would happen to foreign militants within the compound.
The minister said that during the talks, Ghazi suddenly asked what would happen to the foreign militants. The government side, he said, responded that they would be dealt with according to the law.
"On hearing it, Ghazi stopped the telephone conversation," ul-Haq said.
He said it was the first time that Ghazi acknowledged that foreign militants were present inside the mosque.
Several loud explosions were heard just as the vexed looking delegates were getting into their cars and sporadic shooting was also heard.
About two dozen relatives of people trapped inside the complex waited anxiously at the army cordon during the assault.
The government has said wanted terrorists are organizing the defense of the mosque, while Ghazi has accused security forces of killing scores of students.
In his comments on Tuesday, Ghazi said he had offered to show the mediators that they had no heavy weapons, foreign militants or other wanted people inside the mosque.
The siege has given the neighborhood 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.
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 suspected of ties to al-Qaida No. 2 leader Ayman al-Zawahri.
Associated Press writers Zarar Khan and Sadaqat Jan in Islamabad and Habibullah Khan in Khar contributed to this report.