ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Bullet holes by the thousands are sprayed across the walls at the compound surrounding Lal Masjid, the Red Mosque. Windows have been blasted open and brick buildings blown to the ground. In the front area of the mosque itself, the ceiling is scorched. Chunks of the minarets above are gone, blasted by heavy machine-gun fire, by the looks of it.
But when Pakistani soldiers led journalists through the scene Thursday, there were no bodies. In fact, there was very little blood in the areas where reporters were allow to walk: none splattered on the walls, no large pools of it on the floor.
Addressing the nation Thursday night, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf repeated his military's assertion that only 75 people had been killed inside the mosque, which commandos raided after armed Islamic extremists had turned into an anti-government stronghold. Musharraf said Lal Masjid could serve as a turning point for his administration's campaign against Islamic militants.
"Extremism and terrorism will be defeated in every corner of the country," he said, adding that "It is time to think about what we, as Pakistanis, want to do with ourselves, with our country and our religion." He vowed to equip security forces with heavier weaponry, including tanks.
For their part, Islamic militants said they'd seize the opportunity to rally Islamists against the government. At a funeral for Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the firebrand cleric at the center of the standoff, his brother Aziz said he hoped that Lal Masjid and the deaths there would become a rallying cry against Musharraf.
"God willing, Pakistan will have an Islamic revolution soon," he said, according to news reports. "The blood of martyrs will bear fruit."
Meanwhile, major questions surround Lal Masjid, a battleground wiped clean of any trace of casualties despite the 36-hour pitched battle that began at 4:40 a.m. Tuesday.
Figures that Pakistani government officials have given for the number of people killed during the commando raid don't square with the facts.
Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad, the chief spokesman for the Pakistani army, who'd earlier announced a plan to "sanitize" the mosque before journalists were allowed to visit — bristled at the suggestion that more had been killed than the 75 bodies he'd said had been recovered.
"If someone says no, there are more bodies, then he is lying," he snapped.
According to Arshad, 85 men, women and children fled the scene after the fighting began. Together with the official death toll, that would account for 160 people at the mosque.
Another officer, Lt. Col. Baseer Haider, said 107 people had made it out of the mosque, pushing the total to 192.
But Muhammad Ijaz Ul Haq, the minister for minority and religious affairs, said there probably had been far more people inside when Pakistani forces stormed the compound.
"The last figures we had were between 250 and 500 people inside the mosque," he said. During negotiations with Ghazi, the cleric requested food for 250 to 400 people, Haq said.
If Haq's figure is correct, that would leave at least 90 people unaccounted for, and possibly hundreds more. Haq emphasized, though, that Pakistani forces had allowed some 1,200 people to flee the mosque before the battle, possibly saving hundreds of lives.
There was strong circumstantial evidence that the death toll may have gone into the hundreds.
A senior Pakistani government medical official said a team of doctors had been sent to a police facility in the Islamabad suburb of Sihala at about 5 a.m. Wednesday to inspect corpses from the mosque.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fears of being fired or jailed for talking to the news media, said a doctor notified him that he'd come prepared for 50 dead but then was told to expect 350 or 375. Ten more doctors and 10 paramedics were sent to the facility.
When the doctors arrived, they were shown a large tent, packed with blocks of ice, and told that bodies would begin arriving shortly. Then they were told that security authorities had changed their minds and there would be no autopsies. Several hours later, the doctors left the facility having seen only three corpses: one whom they recognized as Ghazi, the senior cleric, and two other men who were identified only by numbers.
Qazi Hussain Ahmad, the head of the country's largest bloc of Islamic political parties, said he'd tabulated figures from various sources and was convinced that the "number dead (at Lal Masjid) — women, children and men — is about 400. This is a total massacre."
During the media tour of the mosque compound, army officials showed a room stacked with AK-47 rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, antipersonnel mines, crates of Molotov cocktails and a suicide vest, which they said had been found in the aftermath of the fighting, which killed 10 commandos and wounded some 35.
The battle had been fierce, and included room-to-room combat, basement ambushes and mosque gunmen shooting from multiple floor levels inside courtyards.
The Interior Ministry ordered gravediggers at one cemetery in Islamabad to start digging 100 graves at 3 a.m. Thursday, said an official with the city's development authority, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. Another call came in the afternoon, asking that more graves be prepared.
The official asked how many. "At least 50 more, and keep the labor on standby, as we may need them again," was the answer, the official said.
As of early afternoon, 82 graves had been filled and sealed. None of them was marked.
(Special correspondent Naveed Ahmad contributed to this report.)