Sun, Jul 24, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Pakistani security forces fear reprisals

BACKLASH A crackdown on Islamic extremists by the Pakistani president after the London bombings may trigger new unrest across Pakistan, security staff said


Pakistani security agencies have warned the government of a possible fundamentalist backlash following a security and administrative crackdown on religious extremists announced last week by President Pervez Musharraf.

In their latest reports to the government, security officials have indicated that radical anti-Musharraf groups could react by targeting important personalities, buildings and assets, private news agency Online reported yesterday.

Quoting unnamed intelligence sources, it said activists in banned militant outfits had gone underground and might try to regroup.

Security agencies have so far rounded up about 300 alleged extremists and members of about 14 banned organizations, most of which were also either outlawed by the US or are on a US terror watch list.

Soon after ordering the hunt for those "preaching hate and sectarian and political violence," Musharraf in his address to the nation on Thursday vowed to deal with militants with an iron hand.

The president, who himself survived two assassination attempts in December 2003, also set a five-month deadline for 14,000 madrasah, or Islamic schools, to register with the government or face punitive action -- a move that has triggered resentment among religious-political parties.

"Musharraf has put his hands in a lion's den," said Hafiz Hussain Ahmed, a central leader of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Ammal -- a religio-political alliance -- in reaction to the compulsory registration of seminaries, many of which are run by the alliance's members.

The fresh crackdown on religious elements and institutions was ordered after British officials talked of a possible nexus between the July 7 bomb attacks in London and some of the outlawed Pakistani militant outfits.

Pakistani authorities, however, denied any links between the London bombings and the arrests, describing the crackdown as the country's "internal matter."

"They all will be tried under the Anti-Terrorism Act, introduced in 1997, because the government is committed to implementing an anti-terrorism and anti-sectarianism [agenda]," said Hasan Waseem Afzal, the home secretary of central Punjab province, in Lahore, the provincial capital.

Nobody would be spared, Afzal warned.

Most of the radical groups are headquartered in the province, where Shiite and Sunni Muslim groups have also fought running vendetta battles, killing hundreds of innocent followers.

But legal experts were skeptical about the sustainability of recent arrests.

"They are against fundamental human rights, and without any legal basis," Tariq Mehmood, an outspoken lawyer, said.

Most of the arrests, if challenged in a court of law, would be declared null and void without any hesitation, Mehmood said.

Ikram Chaudhry, another independent lawyer, also expressed doubts about the crackdown.

"Anything done in haste and without evidence is bound to be faulty," Chaudhry said.

Human-rights activists have also taken a swipe at the operation, which they say could be counterproductive.

"Policy indiscriminately raiding all madrasah is not helpful at all. They should target only suspected people and places," said Anees Jeelani, the head of SPARC, a non-governmental organization working for the protection of childrens' rights.

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