Pakistan protest highlights border radicalism


Sat, Jul 15, 2006 - Page 5

About 2,000 supporters of an outlawed Islamic group chanting "Death to America!" rallied near the Afghan border on Thursday to protest raids on a village by Pakistani security forces hunting for militants.

Protest leaders declared support for the jihad, or holy war, led by the Taliban militia against US forces in Afghanistan, and hailed a top al-Qaeda leader as a "hero of Islam."

The supporters of the Movement for the Enforcement of Mohammed's Law, or Tehrik Nifaz Shariat-e-Mohammedi, rallied in Pakistan's northwestern tribal region of Bajur, near Damadola village where a US missile strike in January purportedly targeted al-Qaeda's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahri.

On Wednesday, security forces hunting militants launched a raid on a village near Damadola. No one was arrested, according to tribal elders.

Two fugitive Islamic clerics, Mausalana Faqir Mohammed and Said Mohammed, who are wanted by authorities for allegedly sheltering foreign militants, were among the leaders of the protest.

Hundreds at the rally, held in a dry river bed, carried AK-47 rifles and rocket launchers. Some with long beards and flowing hair wore commando outfits.

"We don't have foreigners but if they come here we will welcome them," said Said Mohammed, as protesters chanted, "Long live Islam!" "Long live mujahedeen [holy warriors]!" and "Death to America!"

He vowed that al-Zawahri would be welcome if he ever came to their area.

"We will be happy if he comes. We will be proud. He is a hero of Islam," the cleric said.

Maualana Faqir Mohammed demanded that authorities stop anti-militant raids in the area.

"The government should stop these raids. We have thousands of trained men and we will take revenge," he told the rally.

"We will help the people of Afghanistan and fight jihad as long as American and coalition forces are there," he said.

Pakistan says it has deployed more than 80,000 troops along its Afghan border regions to track down militants.

Hundreds of Arab, Central Asian and Afghan fighters -- suspected of links with al-Qaeda -- and local pro-Taliban tribesmen are believed to operate in the tribal regions, including Bajur.

The January missile strike that hit Damadola village missed al-Zawahri but intelligence officials say it killed four senior al-Qaeda operatives, although skepticism remains over that claim because their bodies were never found.