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South Asia: Pakistan's Crackdown Continues, But India Holds Firm On Troop Buildup

  • Alexandra Poolos

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf pledged on 12 January to crack down on terrorism. He is backing his words with actions. Pakistani police have rounded up hundreds of suspected militants, days before U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit to the region. India has cautiously welcomed Pakistan's efforts, but Defense Minister George Fernandes says India is still ready for war if Islamabad does not act quickly against Islamic "holy warriors" battling India in Kashmir. RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos examines one of largest crackdowns in Pakistan's history.

Prague, 15 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In the past three days, police in Pakistan have arrested almost 1,500 suspected Islamic militants, sealed off hundreds of offices, and closed several bank accounts.

The sweep follows a landmark speech by President Pervez Musharraf on 12 January. During the hour-long address, Musharraf spoke strongly against the so-called "Kalashnikov culture" in Pakistan spawned by Muslim extremists. He announced a ban on five militant Muslim organizations, including Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad, two groups accused of terrorism in the disputed region of Kashmir.

"Religious extremism has been going on for years. Every one of us is fed up with it. It is becoming unbearable," Musharraf said. "Our peace-loving people are keen to get rid of the Kalashnikov and weapon culture. Everyone is sick of it. It was because of this that we banned Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad."

The new orders also will change common practices at many of the nation's mosques. From now on, mosque loudspeakers can only be used for calls to prayer, not for political speeches. Madrassahs attached to mosques, often accused of being breeding grounds for Islamic fundamentalism, must now revise their curricula and screen students more carefully.

The crackdown is in response to mounting tensions with India. Both nations have massed large numbers of troops on their shared border. The buildup, the largest since India and Pakistan's last war in 1971, was triggered by the bloody attack on India's parliament on 13 December. India accuses Pakistan's government of harboring and supporting the Islamic militants responsible for the attack and for ongoing separatist violence in the disputed province of Kashmir.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell applauded Musharraf's speech and the subsequent police actions. Powell, who departs today for a South Asian tour, says Musharraf is taking action against terrorist organizations.

"President Musharraf has done more than just speak. He is taking action. He has banned terrorist organizations. He is arresting people. And the Indians have taken note of all of this," Powell said. "So I think I have quite a bit to work with when I go there later this week, in my discussions with both sides."

But in his comments yesterday, Powell acknowledged that tensions are still escalating over Kashmir: "At the moment, we have a very tense, delicate situation along the line of control in Kashmir and also along the international border. And I think we have stabilized things right now to the point where we can continue working the diplomatic and political track and persuade everyone that that is the direction we should continue to move. And the last thing we want to see happen right now in South Asia is a war between these two nuclear-arms states."

While India has responded favorably to Musharraf's actions, war between the two countries remains a possibility. The United News of India reports heavy gunfire today between Indian and Pakistani troops along the international border in Jammu and Kashmir.

Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes said yesterday that India will not withdraw its troops until cross-border terrorism is ended: "The mobilization of the Indian forces is complete, and any effort at de-escalation can come only -- I repeat, only -- if and when the cross-border terrorism is effectively stopped. Things are moving, and I hope they move in the right direction and move fast. We are keen to resolve issues peacefully. But if that does not work, we may be left with no option."

Fernandes leaves today for a week-long visit to the United States.

Musharraf is enjoying wide public support for the crackdown among ordinary citizens, many of whom say the actions are long overdue. But fundamentalism is unlikely to disappear any time soon in Pakistan. Already, leaders of the banned groups are saying their organizations will continue underground and will not give up their fight for Kashmir.

But more moderate groups in Pakistan are also objecting to the widescale arrests of suspected militants.

Professor Khurshid Ahmad, vice president of the moderate Jammat-e-Isami, told reporters that Musharraf is trying to appease India. But he said the Pakistani leader's actions will not, in the end, resolve the Kashmir problem.

"Whatever he has done by banning these organizations, many, like me, would look upon it as an act of appeasement, and appeasement never helps. And appeasement never prevents a war," Ahmad said.

Ahmad says he's unhappy that Musharraf is pursuing a crackdown but focusing little or no attention to establishing democracy in Pakistan. Musharraf came to power during a 1999 military coup. He has promised to hold elections this year. Ahmad says he doubts any elections will occur in the near future.