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Last Updated: Monday, 9 July 2007, 17:07 GMT 18:07 UK
Pakistan to negotiate over mosque
Pakistani soldier outside the Red Mosque
The stand-off remains tense, though clashes have subsided
Pakistan's President Musharraf has sent a team of negotiators to try to end a siege at a radical Islamabad mosque.

The team spent an hour communicating via loudspeaker with the cleric leading militants inside the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) but made no apparent progress.

Talks are expected to resume on Tuesday. Ministers say the militants are holding women and children.

Elsewhere, three Chinese workers were killed in Peshawar in an attack said to be linked to the unrest in Islamabad.

We're doing our best to avoid bloodshed, especially of innocent women and children
Hanif Jalandri,
Madrassa official

There is speculation that Islamic militants may be targeting Chinese people in Pakistan.

Students at the Red Mosque and its attached religious schools have been defying the authorities for several months in their campaign for Sharia law in the capital.

Security forces began their siege of the mosque not long after students there abducted seven Chinese workers they accused of running a brothel.

China swiftly condemned the Peshawar killings and told Pakistan to launch an investigation and take proper steps to protect Chinese in the country, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

The latest developments came as Pakistan's Supreme Court announced it was looking into legal issues surrounding the operation to flush out those inside the mosque.

Members of the opposition Islamic alliance, the MMA, want a ceasefire and humanitarian access to the compound, as well as Supreme Court authorisation for similar operations in the future.

Debate

Gunfire was reported around the mosque overnight and on Monday morning, but clashes were less intense than in previous days, witnesses said.

Gen Musharraf held a high-level security meeting on Monday, at which it was decided to establish a negotiation team to secure the release of women and children still inside.

The team of government negotiators is led by former prime minister Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, who is head of the governing PML(Q) party.

Reports said the negotiators would work with Islamic leaders, who have counselled against sending in troops while there remains a chance of brokering a deal.

Location map

"We're doing our best to avoid bloodshed, especially of innocent women and children," said Hanif Jalandri, a senior figure in the organisation that oversees Pakistan's religious schools, or madrassas.

"We are trying hard to reach a compromise on ending the crisis in a peaceful manner."

But the government has adopted an increasingly tough stance against those within the mosque.

Religious affairs minister Ejaz-ul-Haq, who is one of the negotiators, has described those in charge as "hardened terrorists", although his claims could not be verified.

At least 21 people have died since fighting erupted when the army surrounded the mosque last Tuesday, including an army commander shot dead inside the mosque on Sunday.

'No surrender'

Mr ul-Haq said women and children had been locked up on two floors of the Jamia Hafsa religious school, which is attached to the mosque.

As many as five "hardcore terrorists" were inside the mosque, he added, saying that one person killed on the first day of the siege belonged to Jaish-e-Mohammad, an outlawed radical Muslim organisation which has been linked to al-Qaeda.

Mosque leader Abdul Rashid Ghazi has denied the presence of any banned extremist groups.

He says those inside are students of his religious school and he is in charge.

But he insists that he and his followers would commit suicide rather than surrender.

Intelligence reports indicating that dozens of people inside the compound may be prepared to blow themselves up are complicating any plans to attack, says the BBC's Aamer Ahmed Khan.

Abdul Rashid Ghazi has said as many as 1,800 followers remained in the mosque, although this cannot be verified.

Earlier, Mr ul-Haq said up to 250 militants - including foreign radicals - were leading the fighting.

More than 1,000 supporters left last week under mounting pressure from security forces, although only about 20 have left since Friday.


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