The Pakistani government says that most of the country's population supports its decision to join the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism. But RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports from Islamabad today that demonstrators at anti-American protests hold a differing view.
Islamabad, 5 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has emerged as America's closest ally in its antiterrorism coalition, arrived today in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, for talks with the country's president.
Blair is the most senior member of the U.S.-led coalition to visit Islamabad. He thanked President Pervez Musharraf for joining the coalition and reassured him of Western economic support for his regime and for the anticipated influx of Afghan refugees:
"We have made it clear that we and other countries will provide the resources necessary to help Pakistan cope with the significant refugee problem on its borders and in Pakistan.
Before the 11 September terrorist attacks in the United States, Musharraf -- who came to power in a military coup two years ago -- had been shunned by much of the international community. Now that has changed. The U.S. has lifted a series of sanctions imposed on Pakistan. Blair's visit also demonstrates that the country is being diplomatically rehabilitated.
Blair today stressed the importance of Musharraf's agreement to cooperate with the U.S. and its allies in rooting out suspected mastermind of the attacks Osama bin Laden, who is living in neighboring Afghanistan under the protection of that country's ruling Taliban militia.
"We have agreed that if the current Taliban regime fails to yield up bin Laden and it falls, then its successor must be broad-based, with every key ethnic grouping represented, including the Pashtun, and that Pakistan has a valid interest in close involvement with how such a successor regime might be established."
Blair arrived in Pakistan from Moscow, where he met yesterday with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He is expected to stay only five hours in Pakistan before leaving for India on a hasty trip through the region. Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Riaz Mohammad Khan said his country now expects relations with Britain to normalize:
"Well, I'm sure our expectation is that both countries will now have normal cooperation, friendly relations with one another. Apart from that, there will be an exchange of views relating to the situation in the region."
The Pakistani government says that most of the country's population backs the antiterrorism coalition. But many of the country's powerful religious leaders and parties dispute that. Pakistan has made it clear it is ready to help the U.S. with intelligence about bin Laden and the Taliban. But it is not willing to have U.S.-led troops or military aircraft operating out of the country as that, it fears, could lead to widespread anti-government disturbances.
Today, demonstrations were held around the country in support of the man whom the U.S. and its allies blame for the attacks in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington -- Osama bin Laden. Protesters also voiced support for the Taliban and threatened to take up arms against the U.S. in case of military action against Afghanistan.
Demonstrations were banned in Islamabad. But just a few kilometers away, in Rawalpindi, a city of teeming bazaars and military barracks, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets. The demonstrators, many of them carrying posters of bin Laden, tore apart an effigy of U.S. President George W. Bush and chanted slogans.
Demonstrator Abdul Kahar, a businessman from Rawalpindi, spoke for many of his fellow protesters: "We are against Tony Blair. We're against these people, Tony Blair, [U.S. President George W.] Bush and other people. We will wage a jihad (holy struggle) against America."
As in previous demonstrations, religious leaders addressing the rally spoke of their support for the Taliban and bin Laden. They said that Islam does not support terrorism, and added they do not believe bin Laden is responsible for the attacks on the U.S. They did say he should be tried if there is evidence to support his involvement.
The mood of most of the protesters was such that it was difficult to see what kind of proof might convince them of bin Laden's guilt. Ajaz Abdullah, a farmer who came to the demonstration from 120 kilometers away, said: "They call us terrorists, and we call them terrorists. They are terrorists. We don't believe in terrorism. What happened in New York and Washington -- that is condemnable. That is not the act of a Muslim."
The crowd shouted in approval when the speakers said there would be a holy struggle, or jihad, against the U.S.-led coalition should it launch a military strike against Afghanistan. They warned that the U.S. and its allies would be attacked in return for any violence waged against Muslims. Abdullah said:
"We will die, they will die. What will happen? We all have to die. If someone puts his hand on your neck you will definitely put yours on his neck. This is the concept of jihad. Jihad does not mean that we are terrorists."
There is no way of verifying claims by either the Pakistani government, which says only 15 percent of the population opposes its alliance with the U.S., or by religious groups, that 75 percent of the population supports the Taliban. Abdullah said he believes many people would join a jihad against the U.S.
"Definitely I would join. I think out of these people [the demonstrators] about 50 percent will join. America can only throw his [sic] missiles. He will not come here physically. If he comes here physically, we will fight with axes. We will fight with sticks. Whatever we have, we will fight."
Another demonstrator, Jangir Emad, a student of Islam, said Musharraf has little support: "Seventy to 80 percent of the Pakistani population deny [oppose] Musharraf's decision. That is [because] we are Muslim. Afghans are Muslim. If America attacks Afghanistan, there is no compromise on this issue."
Afghanistan's Taliban government today said it would put bin Laden on trial "in an Islamic way" if the U.S. provides proof of his involvement in the 11 September attacks. However, the Taliban remains emphatic that it will not surrender bin Laden to the U.S., and their latest offer is unlikely to impress America or its allies.
Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Khan avoided giving a direct answer when asked whether his government thinks the new Taliban offer is significant.
"Well, you can be as good a judge [of] what the international community desires from the Afghan government as I can be."
Yesterday Pakistan, which is the only country still maintaining diplomatic ties with the Taliban government, said it is satisfied that the evidence presented by the U.S. is sufficient to indict bin Laden.