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Pakistani troops attempted to flush out holdouts entrenched inside a women's religious school after raiding Islamabad's Red Mosque in fierce fighting Tuesday that left about 50 insurgents and eight soldiers dead, the army said.
Commandos stormed the mosque compound before dawn, and more than eight hours later were still trying to root out the well-armed fighters said to be holding about 150 hostages.
Officials said at least 20 women had emerged from the complex, as well as 27 children.
Commandos assailed the compound from three directions and quickly cleared the ground floor of the mosque, army spokesman Gen. Waheed Arshad said.
Islamic operatives armed with machine guns, rocket launchers, hand grenades, small arms and gasoline bombs put up tough resistance from the basement, and were firing from minarets of the mosque.
About three and a half hours after the assault started, Arshad said 50 percent to 60 percent of the complex had been "cleared," but resistance continued in "various places."
"Those who surrender will be arrested, but the others will be treated as combatants and killed," he said.
Earlier, rebel leader Abdul Rashid Ghazi told the private Geo TV network that his mother had been wounded by gunshot. There was no immediate official confirmation of his claim.
"The government is using full force. This is naked aggression," he said. "My martyrdom is certain now."
He said that about 30 gunmen were resisting security forces but were only armed with 14 AK-47 assault rifles.
Arshad said he had no information on Ghazi's location.
The assault began moments after a delegation led by a former prime minister left the area declaring that efforts to negotiate a peaceful end to the week-old siege in the Pakistani capital had failed.
As they entered their vehicles, several explosions rang out across the city amid the sound of gunfire. Thick smoke rose from the mosque compound. Reporters saw more than 40 ambulances approaching the area along with trucks carrying extra soldiers and ammunition. A helicopter circled overhead.
As the fighting roiled on, emergency workers at an army cordon waited for access to the compound. Women police officers were on standby to handle any female survivors or casualties.
A senior civilian official said troops had arrested dozens of people inside the compound and that part of the madrassa had caught fire.
The official requested anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to media.
The troops moved in a week after the outbreak of fighting between security forces and supporters of hardline clerics at the mosque, who had tried to impose Taliban-style rule in the capital through a six-month campaign of kidnappings and threats. At least 47 people have been killed since July 3.
After a botched commando raid on the high-walled mosque compound at the weekend, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf on Monday assigned ex-premier Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain to try and negotiate a peaceful end to the standoff.
But Hussain and a delegation of Islamic clerics returned crestfallen from the mosque after about nine hours of talks with Ghazi via loudspeakers and cell phones.
"We offered him a lot, but he wasn't ready to come on our terms," Hussain told reporters waiting at the edge of an army cordon shortly before dawn.
About two dozen relatives of people trapped inside the complex waited anxiously at the cordon during the assault.
Zahid Mahmood, who has waited four days for word on his brother, a 20-year-old religious student named Suhail, was heard calling home on cell phone: "There is no hope that I can find Suhail because there are many explosions, people are saying the building has collapsed and there are many killed."
"But still I wish I could find my brother alive," Mahmood told his relatives.
The government has said wanted terrorists are organizing the defense of the mosque, while Ghazi has accused security forces of killing scores of students.
In his comments on Tuesday, Ghazi said he had offered to show the mediators that they had no heavy weapons, foreign militants or other wanted people inside the mosque.
Officials said the mediators had negotiated by telephone and had not entered the mosque because of fears for their safety.
The siege has given the G-6 district of Pakistan's grid-plan capital the look of a war zone, with troops manning machine guns behind sandbagged posts and from the top of armored vehicles.
It has also sparked anger in Pakistan's restive northwest frontier. On Monday, 20,000 tribesmen, including hundreds of masked militants wielding assault rifles, held a protest in the frontier region of Bajur, where many chanted "Death to Musharraf."
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