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July 25, 1999
Jamaat rally calls for Sharief's ouster
About 30,000 Muslim fundamentalists today staged the biggest anti-government protest in Pakistani since the infiltrators pulled out of Kashmir and demanded that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharief step down for betraying the nation.
"Nawaz has to quit," the crowd roared when it was addressed by Qazi Hussain Ahmad, whose Jamaat-i-Islami, Pakistan's biggest fundamentalist party, organised the protest against what speakers called a sell-out and surrender.
The demonstration was marshalled by Kashmiri militants in camouflage fatigues who were asked earlier this month by the government to withdraw from the strategic heights in Kargil to avert a showdown between India and Pakistan spiralling into a fourth war.
Sharief has argued that the withdrawal agreement came only after Pakistan won US President Bill Clinton's pledge of "personal interest" in Kashmir and successfully internationalised a forgotten 52-year-old dispute.
The rally failed to attract the million people Ahmad had hoped to muster, yet the protest by bearded faithful shouting "Down with America" was by far the biggest of a series of scattered opposition-backed demonstrations.
The Jamaat and all opposition parties accuse Sharief of caving in to American pressure and betraying the cause of the Kashmiri militants by first saying it had no control over their war against India and then asking them to withdraw.
The Opposition is also fiercely against peace talks with India and staged violent protests in the West Punjab capital when Sharief and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee signed the Lahore Declaration in February, which committed the two countries to settling disputes through talks.
The Jamaat accused the government of pressuring bus companies into refusing to transport demonstrators to Lahore, the hometown of Sharief and of his brother Shahbaz, chief minister of Punjab, Pakistan's most powerful province.
Ahmad, whose party does not have parliamentary seats because it boycotted the February 1997 poll that returned Sharief to power, accused the prime minister of being autocratic and said the July 4 withdrawal pact with Clinton was unforgivable.
"It is imperative for the resolution of the Kashmir issue and for the safety and solidarity of the country that Nawaz Sharief should be removed from the office of prime minister," said a mock chargesheet read to the crowd.
Sharief, however, shrugged off the demonstration while talking to reporters yesterday and said he had no choice but to seek the pullout of the "mujahideen" (holy warriors). "I think they should make their approach realistic," he said of his critics. "Let them tell us what was the alternative to the Kargil affair."
Ahmad accuses the government of corruption and of being "un-Islamic". He also warned the United States not to mount another attack on Saudi terrorism suspect Osama bin Laden, who is hiding in Afghanistan.
"This will not be in the interest of America. They will invite great danger," he said without elaboration, in apparent reference to speculation that the US may follow up on its August 1998 cruise missile attack on bin Laden with another strike.
Information Minister Mushahid Hussain, who is on the front line of a government offensive against its critics, told newspaper editors as demonstrators gathered that the government had won world backing for real talks with India on Kashmir.
"The environment has now changed. The pressure is on India and now we have to pursue that pressure through all available means, particularly diplomacy," he said.
India rules two-thirds of Kashmir while Pakistan controls the rest. India says Kashmir is an integral part of its territory and refuses Islamabad's demand that it conduct a United Nations-mandated plebiscite to determine the region's future.
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