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Musharraf’s Plane Fired Upon as Mosque Standoff Continues

NY Times | July 7, 2007
SALMAN MASOOD and CARLOTTA GALL

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, July 6 — A burst of gunfire went off as President Pervez Musharraf’s plane took off Friday morning from an airfield in the garrison town of Rawalpindi, near the capital, as the government’s siege of a militant mosque entered its fourth day.

Security officials said they recovered two antiaircraft guns and one submachine gun with a telescopic sight from the rooftop of a house barely a mile from the airport where the shooting had apparently taken place.

It was not immediately clear if there was a link between the shooting and the siege at the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, complex in the heart of the capital, where the leader of the rebellion vowed to fight to the death.

But the gunfire was a reminder of the presence of militants across many districts, as were two roadside bombs that exploded in northwestern Pakistan, one of them killing four soldiers and critically wounding a fifth.

Pakistani officials denied that the president’s plane had come under fire or that a rocket had been fired.

“At the moment there does not appear to be any linkage between the incident and the president’s flight to Turbat,” General Musharraf’s destination in the southwestern province of Baluchistan, a government statement said. The president arrived safely to inspect relief efforts for thousands of people affected by catastrophic floods across that region.

Residents living near where the shooting occurred said they heard a loud bang around 10 a.m. Soon after the gunfire, which lasted less than three minutes, two men chanting “God is great” pulled away on a motorbike, said Muhammad Ali, 19, a student who lived nearby.

Pakistani military officers, along with intelligence officials, cordoned off the house, which is located on a dead-end street, and three military sniffing dogs were brought in. Syed Kamal Shah, the interior secretary, said the antiaircraft guns had not been fired and the matter was under investigation.

The siege of the mosque, where several hundred students and militants remain holed up, seemed to be entering a more tense period after the government rejected the conditions for surrender offered Thursday evening by the leading cleric, Abdur Rashid Ghazi.

“We will not surrender,” Mr. Ghazi told GEO television, an independent channel. “We will be martyred, but we will not surrender. We are more determined now.”

The mood inside the mosque has grown more dangerous, said Tariq Azim Khan, minister of state for information and broadcasting. People inside appeared more determined and were using heavier weapons, he said.

Mr. Khan said the government had learned from one of the students who surrendered that land mines had been laid inside the complex. Although it was not clear if the information was true, it made things more dangerous, he said.

Militants also fired a rocket from inside the mosque complex at an armored personnel carrier. It damaged the vehicle, and one soldier received minor injuries, Mr. Khan said.

Ten parents tried to go to the complex to get their children, as many have in previous days, but were fired upon by the militants, officials said. One father was shot in his leg. Two students who were among a group who tried to escape from the mosque were shot and killed in cross-fire when shooting erupted around them.

Nevertheless, another hundred students have come out of the mosque and surrendered in the past 24 hours, Pakistani officials said. A total of 1,221 students had left by Friday evening.

“Among them, 795 are male students while 426 female students,” Mr. Shah, the interior minister, said at a news briefing in Islamabad, adding that the death toll remained at 19, according to hospital figures. “If there are any bodies inside, we have no information,” he said.

Officials urged the militants to hand over the wounded and sick to the medics while offering to send ambulances.

Muhammad Ali Durrani, the Pakistani information minister, urged Mr. Ghazi, the cleric, to surrender and give up arms. “This problem can be solved in half an hour if he hands over the females and children,” Mr. Durrani said.

Mr. Shah, echoed the remarks. “It is their moral obligation to let children and female students come out rather than using them as human shield,” he said.

Ismail Khan contributed reporting from Peshawar, Pakistan.

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