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Pakistan: Citizens Rally In Support Of President Musharraf

President Pervez Musharraf is being criticized by many in Pakistan for joining the U.S.-led international coalition against terror and the hunt for suspect Osama bin Laden, who is believed to be hiding in neighboring Afghanistan. Today, Musharraf's supporters took to the streets. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky was in Peshawar to watch the rally and filed this report.

Peshawar, 27 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- An estimated 3,000 people attended a rally today in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, held in support of President Pervez Musharraf. The Pakistani leader has recently come under fire for deciding to take part in the U.S.-led international coalition against terrorism.

Similar rallies were held in other towns and cities around the country today. Tens of thousands attended rallies in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, and large numbers gathered in support of the government in the country's largest city, Karachi.

Musharraf has been criticized by politicians and religious groups within Pakistan for his decision to join the coalition. They accuse the international coalition against terror of being a pretext under which to attack the religion of Islam. They say there is no proof that Osama bin Laden was behind the 11 September terrorist attacks in the U.S., and they warn that any attack on Afghanistan could provoke violence in Pakistan and a jihad, or holy struggle, against the U.S. and its allies.

Fears that today's pro-government rallies would be disrupted by those who criticize Musharraf and his decision -- he is perceived by some to have abandoned his former Taliban allies -- proved unfounded. The gatherings proceeded peacefully.

The fears of such disruptions were highest in Peshawar. The city lies close to the border with Afghanistan and is in the region where most of the 2 million Afghan refugees who fled the Soviet occupation of their country in the 1980s still live, in tented camps and impoverished makeshift settlements.

The inhabitants of the area overwhelmingly belong to the Pathan tribe, whose ancient home territory straddles both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

The route to the rally in Peshawar was decorated with bright banners proclaiming unity and honor to Pakistan and with hundreds of green Pakistani flags. Music blared at the stadium as people filed in before being addressed by the governor of the province, other dignitaries, and religious officials.

One of those attending was local businessman Hassan Abbas, who explained why he had come:

"Just to show our solidarity with international unity, to show our emotions against international terrorism."

He said most Pakistanis are horrified by the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington and consider terrorism incompatible with the tenets of Islam. He says he is aware that many of his fellow citizens are critical of Musharraf's stance. Many are misinformed, he said, and others are misguided:

"There is a limited portion of our population who are in fact radicals and fanatics. But a liberal Muslim can never endorse this act which happened on 11 September. And Muslims, on the whole -- the majority of Muslims, more than 90 percent of Muslims -- they don't endorse this idea."

He said his only concern is that after the U.S. has achieved what it wants in the region -- the elimination of bin Laden and those within the Taliban who are harboring him -- Pakistan may again slip off the U.S. agenda. He fears that Islamabad's cooperation with the international coalition will soon be forgotten.