The captured leader of a besieged Pakistani mosque yesterday called on his followers to give themselves up, as dozens more surrendered after security forces set off loud "warning" blasts.
Abdul Aziz said in a bizarre TV interview conducted wearing a veil that around 250 male students, some armed with assault rifles, and up to 800 women were still inside the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque.
The pro-Taliban mosque has been under siege by troops and police since Tuesday when fierce street battles between its hardline followers and security forces left at least 16 people dead.
"After coming out I saw the siege was massive and came to the conclusion that we should give up," he told state television. "The government has massive resources and I realized that people will not be able to stay inside for long."
Aziz appeared at the start of the interview in a black burqa under which his grey beard was visible. The interviewer asked him to take off the veil, which he then lifted to show his face.
In a major coup for the government, he was caught late on Wednesday trying to flee through a cordon around the mosque with several other women while dressed in a burqa. Officials said he was spotted because of his pot belly and unusual height.
"I have told them not to sacrifice their lives for me," he said.
At least 50 more students left the mosque on Thursday, a day after another 1,200 fled.
The government announced a two-hour break in a shoot-on-sight curfew imposed on Wednesday on the block where the mosque is located -- but said it did not apply to the area immediately around the complex.
Security forces stepped up the pressure on those holed up in the mosque before dawn by detonating seven loud explosives charges and smashing down one of its doors with an armored personnel carrier.
The students hurled several grenades and opened fire in return. There were no casualties.
"This was a warning. We are giving them time to surrender peacefully," a senior security official near the scene said on condition of anonymity.
State television said the students were being told over loudspeakers to lay down their arms "or you will be responsible for any losses."
The "rotten" body of a student killed in earlier clashes was brought out of the mosque Thursday and more were believed to be inside, a doctor at the state-run Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences told AFP.
Aziz's brother Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the deputy leader of the mosque, earlier reiterated his refusal to surrender. He said 2,000 male and female followers were still with him and that morale was high.
"We are not terrorists, so why should we lay down our arms?" Ghazi said.
He said he wanted an "honorable solution to the problem."
President Pervez Musharraf, already facing a political crisis ahead of elections later this year after ousting the country's chief justice, ordered the crackdown after the mosque tried to set up a Taliban-style justice system.
Those holding out were thought to include Taliban insurgents from the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan and jihadis belonging to banned Pakistani sectarian groups.