Pakistan Blasts Mosque Walls

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistan's army tried to blast through the wall of a besieged radical Islamic seminary early Sunday to help free hostages held by a cleric and his militant supporters, leaving a commando dead, an official said.

Militants inside the fortresslike Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, opened fire on the army forces, wounding two commandos, army spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad said. One of them later died, bringing the official death toll in the siege to at least 24.

In his first public statement on the siege, the country's president, General Pervez Musharraf, threatened on Saturday to kill those holdingout unless they surrendered.

Thousands of troops have surrounded the mosque and an adjoining seminary for women over the past six days in the Pakistani capital, but have so far held back from an all-out assault.

"So long as there are people inside who are holding innocent children and women hostages, we have to be very careful. If we wanted to barge in guns blazing, we could have done it," Information Minister Tariq Azim said.

"We will have to play this wait game. It may take a while, but I think we will succeed in the end," he told the Dawn News television channel. Azim said about 24 people had been confirmed killed, with many more hospitalized.

Gunfire and heavy explosions could be heard just after midnight Sunday and then sporadically throughout the dawn hours, punctuating the thunder of a fierce monsoon downpour. By midmorning, both the gunfire and rain had stopped.

Musharraf said restraint had been exercised to ensure the safety of the women and children, who officials say are being held hostage by the mosque's senior cleric, Abdul Rashid Ghazi.

Ghazi, a former civil servant turned rigid Islamist, says he and his followers prefer martyrdom to the unconditional surrender demanded by the government.

Arshad, the army spokesman, said the dead commando had been overseeing the operation to blast holes in the walls of the compound when he was shot a number of times by militants.

"They were working to help the women and children, who have been taken hostage by extremists and militants, Abdul Rashid Ghazi and his people, to free them from their clutches," Arshad said.

He said security forces have used explosives to blast six or seven holes in the perimeter walls of the embattled school and several people have escaped through them.