ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Fears deepened yesterday about the fate of hostages reportedly being held by Islamic militants inside a besieged radical mosque in the heart of the capital.
As Pakistani troops encircled the Red Mosque for a fifth day, the cleric in charge declared that he hoped that the standoff, which has left at least two dozen people dead, would help trigger an Islamic revolution in Pakistan.
It was not clear how many people were inside the mosque complex, which contains two madrassas, or seminaries, with an enrollment of about 5,000 students. About 1,200 people have surrendered to authorities, but the number of those leaving the mosque has slowed to a trickle.
Some emerging students have said that a hard-core group of about 50 militants is preventing hundreds of people inside, including women and children, from leaving. The Pakistani army has been blasting holes in the wall of the compound in hopes of providing escape routes, and the sound of explosions echoed again yesterday through the residential neighborhood where the mosque is located.
The government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf says it has held back a full-scale assault out of concern for those held against their will, but it described the ringleaders as "terrorists" affiliated with radical Pakistani groups.
The mosque's head cleric, who took over as leader after his brother was caught last week trying to slip out of the compound in women's clothes, said security forces had killed 300 of his followers. Authorities dismissed that claim.
The cleric, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, was quoted in Pakistani newspapers yesterday as saying that he and his followers hoped their "martyrdom" would inspire a wider fight against the government.
However, the standoff has not generated significant support even from hard-line religious parties, and the public seems to approve the government's decision to move against the mosque.
"We have unyielding belief in God that our blood will create a revolution," Ghazi wrote in a commentary carried in several newspapers.
Although the standoff burst into violence only last week, the confrontation has been brewing for months. In February, female students took over a public library adjacent to their madrassa, and students embarked on a Taliban-style anti-vice campaign in the capital, raiding video stores and abducting alleged prostitutes.
Musharraf, an important ally of the Bush administration, has said the radicals inside the mosque must surrender or die.
Mubashir Zaidi and Laura King write for the Los Angeles Times.