Pakistani troops Tuesday launched a huge operation against militants holed up in an Islamabad mosque after negotiations to free women and children failed, leaving 20 rebels and three troops dead.
Massive blasts and intense gunfire rocked the pro-Taliban Red Mosque, where the government alleges that hundreds of people have been held as human shields for eight days. Plumes of black smoke rose above the complex.
Around 20 children escaped from the fortified mosque and were rescued by security forces, the military said. Dozens of ambulances with sirens wailing were seen in nearby streets.
“It is a final push to clear the mosque of armed militants,” military spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad told AFP. The battle was still raging after more than three hours.
The military said troops had entered the building from three sides and were backed by armoured personnel carriers. The government has said around 100 militants were inside the compound along with 300-400 women and children.
A girls’ religious school adjoining the mosque caught fire.
Arshad said at least 20 militants were killed in the fighting and 15 injured. Three security forces personnel were killed and 15 wounded, he said.
Arshad said he had “no information” about the fate of Abdul Rashi Ghazi, the firebrand cleric leading the militants.
“The militants are using small arms and grenades. They are in the basement, we have covered the rooftop,” he said.