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Pakistan: Protests Bring Large, But Subdued, Crowds

  • Askold Krushelnycky

Pakistan's religious leaders had called for massive anti-American demonstrations to be held throughout the country today to protest the U.S.-led air attacks against Afghanistan. Large demonstrations did take place, but RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports from Peshawar that the protests stayed relatively subdued after the government issued warnings that security forces would open fire against violent protesters.

Peshawar, Pakistan; 12 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Anti-American demonstrations called by Pakistan's religious leaders were held today throughout the country. In Karachi, the country's biggest city and commercial center, there were outbreaks of violence, with reports of some buildings -- including the American Kentucky Fried Chicken fast-food outlet -- being torched.

Elsewhere, however, demonstrations against the U.S. and British air attacks on Afghanistan were mostly peaceful. In the capital Islamabad, only around 2,000 demonstrators gathered. The neighboring city of Rawalpindi reported a similar number of protesters.

The city of Peshawar, near the Afghanistan border and home to large numbers of Afghan refugees, had its largest demonstration today since the beginning of the air strikes on 7 October. Around 7,000 protesters staged marches following noon prayers at the city's mosques.

Carrying posters of Osama bin Laden, the protesters marched through streets shouting anti-Western slogans.

The protesters also condemned Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who has joined the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition and has allowed coalition aircraft to overfly Pakistani airspace and use bases to launch any potential search-and-rescue missions into Afghanistan.

In Peshawar, as in other cities in Pakistan, massive contingents of heavily armed soldiers and police kept watch over the protesters. Armored personnel carriers shadowed the demonstrators, who were channeled along routes sealed off with barbed wire. Hundreds of troops and police reservists gathered nearby. Peshawar police sources said some 10,000 police and troops were on duty.

Religious leaders addressed the crowds, saying the U.S. and its allies were waging a war not against terrorism but against Islam. They said thousands of people had already crossed from Pakistan into Afghanistan to join the ruling Taliban militia's holy struggle, or jihad, against the United States. They urged more volunteers to follow suit.

One of the demonstrators, shopkeeper Wajid Ali, said thousands of demonstrators had been prevented from entering Peshawar by security forces guarding roads approaching the city.

"We want to achieve the victory of the Taliban. We can do that by jihad. We will sacrifice ourselves, we will sacrifice everything. I am going [to join the jihad], we all are going. Islam is the best religion."

Student Hasim Abbas said he believed President Musharraf was wrong to support the antiterrorism coalition but said the demonstration was not against him.

"[The protest is] against the attacks by America against the innocent people of Afghanistan. It's not against Musharraf. The attacks by America [are] much [worse] than the attacks on America."

Demonstrators rejected the notion that Osama bin Laden -- whom the U.S. has named as the prime suspect in the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington -- is the target and said the strikes on Afghanistan are simply aimed at destroying Islam.

Medical student Abdur Nikab, like many demonstrators, said Muslims could not have been responsible for the attacks on the U.S. because terrorism runs counter to the tenets of Islam. Nikab said he held firm to his view despite recent statements by a spokesman for bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network that more airplanes will be hijacked and used in suicide attacks.

"Hold the people who have done the terrorism. The innocent people of Afghanistan don't do any terrorism. There are no terrorists in Afghanistan. Show us the proof, give us the proofs that there are terrorists."

Demonstrators said they were angered by Taliban reports that as many as 160 Afghan civilians have been killed in the U.S.-led air raids. Student Abbas repeated a sentiment heard often during the protests, that he believed the coalition aircraft are deliberately targeting civilians.

"America is saying they are targeting the military camps -- then how are innocent people dying? Why are they targeted?"

Today's demonstrations were seen by many as a battle of wills between the religious fundamentalists -- who claim they enjoy the support of the majority of Pakistanis -- and President Musharraf, who likewise says he reflects the views of most of his citizens.

In the end the demonstrations were largely subdued, with few reported injuries. The Pakistani government, however, is keeping tight control over the press, and it sometimes takes several days for news from more distant regions of Pakistan to filter into the mainstream media. There is the chance that any of today's scheduled demonstrations that turned violent might go unreported by the Pakistani media.

Religious leaders are already calling for a series of mass demonstrations in Karachi on 15 October. They are urging businesses in the city to close for the day. Other large protests are expected to follow next week in Peshawar (19 October) and Islamabad (21 October). The religious leaders say their aim in organizing the mass demonstrations is to topple Musharraf from power.

Also today, Pakistan's foreign minister, Abdul Sattar, said the U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan should end after the capture of bin Laden.

In an interview in Islamabad, Sattar warned that an extended campaign would cause collateral damage throughout the Islamic world.