November 8, 2001
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Pakistan braces for Friday strikes by religious parties

Muhammad Najeeb in Islamabad

A major face-off with the Pakistani government looms large on Friday as religious parties prepare to defy a ban on protest rallies against the US war in Afghanistan.

A group of religious parties, known as the Pakistan-Afghanistan Defence Council, has called for a transport and business strike on Friday and planned rallies throughout the country to condemn Islamabad's support to the US campaign.

Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan chief Maulana Shah Ahmad Noorani said: "We have requested people to make the strike a success."

He warned the Pakistan authorities not to 'disrupt the rallies or force people to keep open their businesses'.

"We want to remain peaceful and express our concern against the military strikes. The government should not interfere in our peaceful plans, otherwise the responsibility of law and order will rest with the them," he added.

But the government is determined to block the strikes, which will take place in the absence of President Pervez Musharraf, who left on a weeklong foreign tour on Wednesday.

"The supremacy of law would be ensured at all costs and no one would be allowed to disrupt civic life," Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider said, warning religious parties not to challenge the 'writ of the government'.

Ever since the US-led air strikes in Afghanistan began October 7, religious parties have been staging massive protest rallies regularly.

While the government claimed these voices are in minority, pro-Taleban sentiments seem to have grown, with high civilian casualties being reported in the month-long bombing campaign against Kabul.

Some political parties and social organisations have also held demonstrations and staged marches to voice their opposition to the US.

Some of these groups have assured support to Friday's strike call, claimed Noorani who said, "All markets and businesses in the country would be closed and there would be no transport on roads."

Earlier rallies have been quite violent. Five people have been killed in the Pakistani cities of Quetta, Karachi and Jacobabad. There have also been incidents of arson and attacks on property.

But for the last 10 days things have been relatively quiet.

Haider said: "We have been able to control the rallies. There is no bar on peaceful protest. Everyone has this right. But this should be done lawfully."

He appealed to transporters, traders and 'saner elements' not to be swayed by religious parties.

Islamabad has given sweeping powers to provinces to clamp down on religious extremists threatening to strike. "A plan has been prepared to deal with these extremists," a government official said.

Unions of major markets and business centres in major cities like Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi said they would observe a strike Friday.

"Most of us have taken the decision fearing attacks by protestors," a Rawalpindi shopkeeper said.

Jamaat-e-Islami chief Qazi Hussain Ahmed and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam president Fazlur Rehman are already under arrest, and the government has filed a number of cases against them for instigating the public against the government.

Indo-Asian News Service

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