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Pakistan: Near Afghan Border, Protests Show No Sign Of Abating

  • Askold Krushelnycky

Pakistani demonstrators returned to city streets today as U.S. and British forces continued their air attacks against suspected terrorist bases in neighboring Afghanistan. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky attended a rally in the center of Peshawar, a city close to the Afghan border, and filed this report.

Peshawar, Pakistan; 10 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Peshawar is one of Pakistan's most volatile cities. And it is not only its position -- close to the Afghan border -- that makes it so. Peshawar is also the capital of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier province and home to a majority population made up of the same Pathan (Pashtu) tribe that comprises the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan -- and the core of that country's ruling Taliban militia.

The Peshawar region has an additional tie to Afghanistan: More than 2 million Afghan refugees have settled there since fleeing the Soviet invasion of their country in the 1980s.

Pakistan has seen numerous anti-American protests since U.S.-led military strikes were launched against targets in Afghanistan on 7 October. The government has banned demonstrations, and protests today in Peshawar were noticeably smaller than those held on the previous two days. The demonstrators were mostly religious students from the city's madrassahs, or theological schools.

As on previous days, demonstrators today gathered in Peshawar's main Khyber bazaar. Most traders in the teeming streets pulled down the shutters on their small, open-fronted shops, as hundreds of religious students, or Talibs -- from which the Taliban takes its name -- marched through the streets. Riot police armed with batons, machine guns, and tear gas nearly outnumbered the demonstrators.

The demonstrators halted at a makeshift stage, where impassioned speakers condemned the U.S., the West, and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who is cooperating with the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism.

One of the speakers at the rally was Maulana Fazlur Rahman, the leader of the Northwest Frontier of Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI), one of Pakistan's two largest fundamentalist Islamic parties. He expressed satisfaction with the protests to date and said demonstrations will grow as the attacks against Afghanistan continue.

"We are satisfied because many people are supporting our demonstrations and they already have protested with us against the U.S. war."

Rahman called for a large demonstration on Friday (12 October) to protest the attacks and demand the release of a JUI national leader, who was arrested on 7 October and placed under house arrest. Pakistani security forces say his anti-Western and anti-government speeches posed a threat to law and order.

The issue is set to become a battle of wills between Pakistan's religious parties and the government of President Musharraf. Musharraf says most people in Pakistan support his decision to cooperate with the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition. But religious parties, who oppose the coalition, claim that they are the ones with massive support.

The police and army have set up checkpoints at all roads approaching Peshawar, and many fear there will be bloodshed if demonstrators step up protests in days to come. Rahman of the JUI vowed that demonstrations would intensify.

"We will, Inshallah ["God willing"], every day protest in Pakistan, district-wise, [from] street to street, [in] villages, on the frontier. Anywhere, we will, Inshallah, strike. We will strike against the U.S., against those forces who go with U.S."

One of the protesters attending today's rally, Haji Khan, said he did not think security measures would dissuade demonstrators from coming to Peshawar.

"I don't think [people will be deterred] because people are bursting -- they would like to demonstrate as loudly as they can."

Pakistani police have already shot and killed at least four protesters over the past three days. But demonstrators said the protests were likely to grow still more violent as news reached Pakistan of deaths from the air strikes in Afghanistan.

In videotaped statements released to the Arab press, Osama bin Laden and a spokesman for his Al-Qaeda terrorist network, Sulaiman Bu-Ghaith, both praised the suicide airliner attacks that killed an estimated 6,000 people in New York and Washington -- and promised more such action. Yet most demonstrators -- like religious student Hazrat Ali -- steadfastly refuse to believe that bin Laden was behind the 11 September attacks.

"Osama is not involved in this. We have always been against such acts. And if Israel [is responsible for the attacks], then Israel should be investigated."

Protesters were incensed by the Pakistani government's admission that it is granting U.S. military planes the use of two of its airbases. Demonstrators like Khan said they would stage armed uprisings against Musharraf if he did not reverse his policy.

"We dislike [Musharraf's] pro-American policy. We would like our government to support the Muslims and Taliban."

Pakistan has said that it will not allow U.S. or allied planes to launch attacks from Pakistan but that the airbases at Chitral and Jacobabad could be used for logistical support. Military sources say the most likely use would be for launching rescue missions should any U.S. or British planes be downed. Damaged Western planes could also make emergency landings at the bases.

Several religious leaders have already called on their followers to join Taliban forces in Afghanistan. One religion student said he was pleased by the Taliban's announcement that it was lifting restrictions it claimed to have placed on bin Laden's freedom of movement. The student supported the Taliban's declaration of a "jihad," or holy struggle, against the U.S. and said, "Muslims are ready for any sacrifice."

Taliban supporters say that some 30,000 people have already crossed into Afghanistan from Pakistan to join the Taliban.

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