ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistani troops continued a fierce battle to seize a mosque compound in the nation's capital Tuesday, killing a senior cleric as the death toll climbed above 50.
The pre-dawn commando raid claimed the life of Abdul Rashid Ghazi, a cleric who had called for hard-line Islamic rule in Pakistan, according to senior sources in Pakistan's interior ministry.
The fighting comes at a precarious moment for President Pervez Musharraf, a major U.S. ally in the region who is facing stiff opposition from both liberal factions and conservative mullahs.
Ghazi could become a martyr for religious extremists, but for many Pakistanis, the armed resistance by hardliners holed up in the compound more than justified the military's assault.
Government officials said that by the afternoon at least 50 people from the compound and eight soldiers had been killed, but Kabir Ali Wasti, a vice president in Musharraf's party, said in a phone interview that there were more than 100 dead by early Tuesday evening.
Calls to hospital officials across Islamabad and its suburb of Rawalpindi suggested that Wasti was correct. Pakistani troops barred journalists from the area, and local hospitals also turned reporters away.
Pakistani authorities apparently were surprised by the level of resistance. At 11 p.m. in Islamabad, more than 18 hours after the fight began, troops were still in fierce gun battles with hardcore militants.
After storming the mosque, Pakistani troops moved to other buildings in the sprawling compound — a woman's seminary, a children's library, clerics' quarters — in close-quarters combat as they cleared one room after the next. Smoke and the occasional burst of flame from the fighting could be seen hanging over Lal Masjid, or the Red Mosque, and heavy machine gunfire could be heard.
Ghazi was reportedly in the basement of the women's seminary, or madrassa, at the far end of the compound when he died.
Khalid bin Majeed, an official with the Pakistan Red Crescent Society, said more than 100 ambulances had ferried the dead and injured from the Lal Masjid site to hospitals across Islamabad and surrounding areas.
The Pakistani military described the route of attack in a news conference on Tuesday to make the case that troops had moved as carefully as possible. Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad said government forces were "moving step by step to contain the human damage and save as many human lives as possible."
The government appeared to be bracing for a backlash. Additional army units were deployed to border provinces, and police officials there said troops were on high alert. Mohammed Tahir Khan, the police chief in Peshawar, said that all leaves had been cancelled and that extensive checkpoints were being set up on the surrounding highways.
"This is a very important and delicate operation," Wasti said. "The people could react; the mullahs could call for protests."
In Batagram, north of Islamabad, protesters set on fire offices belonging to the Red Cross and Care International, according to news reports.
On Monday, thousands of men had demonstrated in the Bajaur tribal area — near the Afghan border — many of whom pumped their AK-47s in the air and chanted "Death to America" and "Death to Musharraf."
"Military dictatorship and extremism go hand in hand, and this has been the dilemma of Pakistan," said Farid Paracha, a member of Pakistan's parliament and the country's largest bloc of Islamic parties.
The push into the mosque came after a standoff on July 3, when local police and men from Lal Masjid exchanged gunfire; Pakistani paramilitary and army units quickly cordoned the area.
Led by Ghazi and his brother — who was caught earlier in the siege trying to escape the mosque dressed in a burqa — Lal Masjid had embarked on a series of campaigns to enforce strict Islamic law in the area surrounding their mosque.
Women from the madrassa had raided a local business that they claimed was operating as a front for prostitutes; in the fracas that ensued, two policemen were kidnapped. When a magazine printed pictures of scantily clad models in an Adam and Eve theme, mosque leaders called for the assassination of the magazine's editor.
As recently as Monday evening, Musharraf signaled that he was willing to allow negotiators to try to calm the situation. But at about 4:40 a.m. Tuesday, commando teams backed by armored vehicles punched into the compound.
Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg, a former chief of staff of Pakistan's army who maintains deep contacts within the military, said Musharraf appears to have pushed ahead with the operation to head off efforts by the country's Supreme Court to intervene.
The court met on Monday and asked that the government devise a plan to ensure the safe passage of women and children in the mosque compound. It also directed the interior ministry to arrange a meeting of senior clerics to act as negotiators.
Musharraf "just wanted to finish it off to present it (the Lal Masjid situation) as a fait accompli to the Supreme Court," Beg said.
But Wasti, the senior official from Musharraf's party, said that the government tried coming to an understanding with Ghazi. The problem, Wasti said, was that militant fighters had taken over the mosque and had marginalized Ghazi's ability to maneuver.
Rafi Usmani, one of the negotiating clerics, said they were close to reaching a deal with Ghazi when Musharraf's office sabotaged a draft proposal.
"General Musharraf had completely changed the basis of the draft agreement sent to him for approval, and we were ordered to get a yes or no reply" from Ghazi, Usmani said. He said he was ordered to get a response in 15 minutes.
(Ahmad is a McClatchy special correspondent.)