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Pakistan: Anti-American Sentiment Grows As Protests Heat Up

  • Askold Krushelnycky

Anti-American demonstrations broke out in a number of Pakistani cities today in the wake of last night's U.S. and British raids against targets in neighboring Afghanistan. State security forces have managed to keep the protesters under control, but RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports from the Pakistani city of Peshawar that the demonstrations are expected to spread.

Peshawar, 8 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Thousands of Pakistanis took to the streets today to express outrage over last night's U.S. and British strikes against Afghanistan's radical Islamic Taliban government. Many vowed to wage a jihad, or holy struggle, against the U.S. and its allies and said that Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf -- who supports the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition -- will be overthrown.

Some protests began within hours of the air attacks last night. In the city of Peshawar near the Afghan border, thousands of students poured out of their hostels for rallies where they shouted anti-Western slogans and condemned Musharraf.

Riot police wielding batons broke up the protest. This morning the Peshawar university, which has an enrollment of more than 10,000 students, was closed indefinitely and students were told to leave the city and go back to their homes.

Protests also erupted today in Peshawar's large and bustling Khyber bazaar, a warren of narrow streets with small, open-fronted shops. Riot police, backed up by soldiers with machine guns, dispersed the demonstrators in a series of running street battles.

The security forces beat protesters with long batons and fired tear-gas canisters into the crowds.

As night fell in Peshawar, the heavily armed city remained tense, with demonstrators promising more protests tomorrow. Prior to last night's attacks, Western journalists were not treated with hostility by Pakistani protestors. But today the attitude of many demonstrators turned ugly, and two Western television crews were chased and beaten up by demonstrators.

Peshawar and the surrounding region is populated overwhelmingly by Pathans (Pashtuns), the same ethnic group which makes up the majority of Afghanistan's population. Almost 2 million Afghan refugees have remained in Pakistan after fleeing the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

In the town of Landikotal northwest of Peshawar, police fought battles with around 2,000 pro-Taliban supporters.

In Quetta, another border city further southwest, security forces were less successful in controlling the demonstrators. One protester was reported killed by a stray bullet. Protesters rampaged through the city center, setting fire to buildings, including a police station. Police locked foreign journalists in their hotels, saying they would be unsafe if they tried going onto the streets.

Crowds also gathered in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. They brought traffic to a halt at many of the main streets, but the protests -- although loud -- were mostly peaceful.

Violent demonstrations were reported in Pakistan's largest city and its commercial center, Karachi, and in the southern city of Lahore.

In Peshawar's Khyber bazaar, acrid tear-gas fumes wafted through the hot, dust-filled air. Hundreds of troops were in the streets and armored personnel carriers were parked near potential flashpoints. Some soldiers rested in small parks, sprawled on the brown grass amid riot shields and machine guns.

The U.S. consulate in the city was protected by large numbers of security forces who sealed off nearby streets with concrete barriers designed to prevent possible car bomb attacks.

One of the Peshawar protesters, Sallah Uddin, who has a bookshop in the bazaar, spoke as police fired gas canisters nearby and chased groups of protesters.

"This action, this is not terrorist? America is not a terrorist? This is not terrorism? They [the Afghans] have not bread for eating, no petrol, no water, no fuel, not anything, no electricity. There is no one in Afghanistan who is a terrorist. The terrorists are in America, not in Pakistan or Afghanistan."

Earlier in the day President Musharraf addressed the nation in a television broadcast, giving unequivocal backing to the military strike against the Taliban and suspected terrorist bases belonging to Osama bin Laden.

Musharraf said that he enjoyed the backing of the overwhelming majority of his country's citizens and blamed the anti-Western demonstrations on a minority loyal to Pakistan's militant Muslim groups.

But hours before yesterday's attack, Musharraf forced the resignation of the head of the country's intelligence service, Lieutenant General Mohammad Aziz Khan, and the deputy army chief of staff, Lieutenant General Muzaffar Hussain Usmani. The men were known for their sympathies for the Taliban and contacts with militant Islamic parties.

One senior Pakistani official, who did not want to be named, said the move meant that Musharraf feared that the two might be plotting to overthrow him. The official said: "The army is a very disciplined organization in Pakistan, and Musharraf's control of it is probably secure. But there are undoubtedly elements within it which find his cooperation with America offensive."

But another demonstrator, politics and law student Babrak Mohamed, disputed Musharraf's claim to have the support of most Pakistanis. He said tight government controls on Pakistani media -- much of which, especially television, has not reported the demonstrations -- gives an inaccurate portrait of the country's mood.

"It is totally wrong, because a minority of the people are supporting General Musharraf. The people who are in the upper classes are supporting General Musharraf, but the masses are totally against the policies of General Musharraf."

But some people in Peshawar, like Hejaz Ali, a doctor, support Musharraf. They approved his decision to join the antiterror coalition because it brought Pakistan out of years of international isolation and would help to cure its sick economy. Ali also said he believed many people in Afghanistan disliked the Taliban and would welcome the eradication of the radical regime.

"The anti-Taliban [people] are very happy because they say that when the Taliban leave Afghanistan, they will live in freedom."

But Ali himself was a minority on the streets today. Most of the people who gathered condemned the air raids as an attack against Islam.

Social-science student Ershad Ali said he and many Pakistanis were angry that Musharraf's security forces had arrested Pakistan's most powerful militant Islamic leader, Maulan Fazl-ur-Rehman. Ali said 30 students from his college had left today to cross the border into Afghanistan to join the Taliban fighters as mujahedin holy warriors.

"There are some groups which are prepared for jihad [holy struggle]. But in this situation everyone will go. Everyone is a mujahedin because it is injustice. The people of Islam are very peaceful, but when someone disturbs their religion then they will become one people. I will die."

The next few days will determine whether the protesters become a vociferous but controllable irritant for Musharraf or a force that threatens his hold on power.