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Pakistan: Government Cracking Down On Militants

By Charles Recknagel/Siyavosh Ardalan

Pakistan has increased the presence of security forces in major cities in the wake of rioting against Western action in Afghanistan. At the same time, the government has detained several key Islamic militant leaders in an effort to rein in their supporters. RFE/RL Persian Service correspondent Siyavosh Ardalan is in Islamabad and reports on the crackdown effort.

Prague, 12 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In the past two days, the Pakistani army has dramatically increased its security presence in the capital Islamabad and several other major cities.

The army has thrown up sandbag bunkers, reinforced with bricks and concrete, at all entrances to Islamabad's diplomatic enclave where most foreign embassies are located. The bunkers -- manned by soldiers with automatic weapons -- have also appeared outside Islamabad's state television station building and several other government facilities.

Islamabad was built as the capital in the 1960s and is usually among the most peaceful cities in the country. Residents say it is the first time they have seen such tight security. In addition to the bunkers, small army units are deployed at all intersections, each equipped with a radio and watching the streets carefully.

Other cities, including Quetta in the west and Karachi, the commercial capital, in the south also have stepped up security measures.

In Karachi today, police fired tear gas in an attempt to quell anti-American protests in which cars were torched and demonstrators hurled stones at two restaurants of the U.S. fast-food chain Kentucky Fried Chicken.

And in the northwestern city of Peshawar, police today set up a heavy cordon around the downtown area in anticipation of violence there. The city has repeatedly been the scene of violent protests on Fridays, the Muslim day of prayer.

RFE/RL Persian Service correspondent Siyavosh Ardalan, in Islamabad, says the increased security is in line with official promises to crack down on militant groups that seek to challenge the government's stated support for the U.S.-led war on terror.

The past week has seen repeated militant protests, several of which have resulted in deaths and injuries. One protester was killed in Quetta on 8 October when crowds set fire to the local office of the UN children's agency, UNICEF. On 9 October, police shot dead four protesters in the town of Kuchlak, near Quetta, as demonstrators attacked a bank and tried to storm a police station. The same day, another protester was shot dead in Hangu, in the Northwest Frontier province.

Ardalan reports that after the disturbances, the police chief in Quetta and his deputy were dismissed amid charges that they were too lax in dealing with rioters.

Siyavosh Ardalan said: "The police chief and his deputy were dismissed respectively from their posts due to what was called laxity in their dealings with the protests. The police in Quetta apparently, in dealing with the protesters -- even though they threw tear gas among them, even though some units from the armed forces were brought to the scene to quell the demonstrations -- nevertheless, the authorities felt that they had not dealt fiercely enough with the demonstrators."

The crackdown has seen police place three top militant leaders under house arrest since 7 October in an effort to reign in their supporters. The arrests have targeted the Afghanistan-Pakistan Defense Council, a 35-member group of Islamic parties formed this year to help the Taliban after the levying of UN sanctions.

Maulana Azam Tariq, head of Sipah-e-Sahabah Pakistan, a militant group belonging to the majority Sunni Muslim sect, was detained at Lahore airport on 8 October and placed under house arrest in the town of Jhang in central Punjab province.

Prior to his house arrest, Tariq has been adamant in his criticism of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's support for Washington. He told correspondent Ardalan in an interview last week that his supporters would make it difficult for any U.S. forces to use Pakistani military facilities.

"If Pakistan offers its military bases to the U.S., we will surround the bases with peaceful demonstrations. And we will make it very difficult for U.S. forces to be in Pakistan."

Also early this week, police placed Maulana Samiul Haq, chairman of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Defense Council, under house arrest. Haq is a leader of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) party and head of a religious school, or madrassah, in northwest Pakistan that has taught several Taliban leaders. The school is said to have supplied students as fighters for the Taliban.

Authorities placed another JUI leader, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, under house arrest Sunday. Rehman, arrested just hours before he was to address a major anti-U.S. protest, heads a faction of the JUI which has been central to protests across the country.

Despite the crackdown, other militant Islamic leaders have said they will continue their opposition to Islamabad's policies. The leader of the Jamiat-e-Islami (JI), the largest of Pakistan's Islamic parties and one that usually represents the moderate face of the movement, said Tuesday that continued strikes on Afghanistan will only fuel protests.

JI leader Qazi Hussein Ahmed told Reuters, "if they want us to bring out millions of people, just wait a few days if these attacks continue."

Political analysts say the crackdown on Islamic militant groups is risky for Musharraf because -- while Islamist parties have never won more than 2 percent of the popular vote in elections -- they have played a key role in pursuing what most Pakistanis regard as a liberation struggle in Kashmir. That struggle seeks to end India's rule over its portion of Muslim-majority Kashmir, which has been divided between India and Pakistan since the creation of the states in 1947.

Pakistan denies giving more than diplomatic and moral support to Islamist guerillas fighting in Kashmir, many of whom are members of Pakistan's radical Islamic parties. The parties are reported to operate military training camps in Afghanistan in close association with the Taliban and have proved useful to previous Pakistani governments in applying pressure on New Delhi for a negotiated solution to the Kashmir problem. India has refused any negotiated settlement on Kashmir, which it regards as part of its sovereign territory.

That may mean that Islamabad will hesitate to engage in any full-scale crackdown on radical Islamic groups so long as the Kashmir dispute remains open.

Pakistan's Islamic religious parties have called for a nationwide strike on 15 October to protest against a scheduled visit by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to Islamabad in the next few days.