300 religious activists arrested in nation-wide crackdown

Around 300 members of various religious groups were detained by authorities on Thursday in a countrywide crackdown on suspects behind the Karachi suicide bombing that killed 11 French technicians and four Pakistanis.

As raids on militants continued, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents and French investigators joined Pakistani officials in probing a possible terrorist link to the murderous suicide attack, the first in Karachi.

In Peshawar, police rounded up dozens of people associated with banned outfits and other religious organisations. Most of the detainees belonged to the Jaish-i-Muhammad, Sipah-i-Sahaba and JUI (F). The detentions are part of the nation-wide swoop against suspected elements.

The JUI (F) is poised to hold Friday demonstrations across the country to protest joint Pak-American military operations in tribal areas to net al-Qaeda and Taliban fugitives. However, it was not immediately clear whether the arrests would have any effect on the planned protest programme.

A provincial department official said they were picking up people suspected of having links with terrorists groups. In the wake of the new terrorist strike, security has been tightened in the city, especially around foreigners, their offices and work-places.

“Many activists of SSP, TJP and other groups have been arrested under the Maintenance of Public Order Ordinance,” an official revealed, pointing out that a large number of such elements - sensing the raids - had gone underground to dodge the swoop. Saeed-ur-Rehman, son of Mir Rehman, provincial press secretary of SSP, Pervez, son of Ghulam Muhammad, are among the detainees.

Saeed Akhtar Ali, son of Syed Phool Badshah, Agha Taib Ali Shah, son of Agha Amir Badshah (Naqvi group), Safdar Abbas, son of Asghar Abbas, (Mukhtar group) and Nawaz Ali Giyani, son of Bahdur Ali Giyani, provincial commander (Mukhtar group) were included among the TJP members held yesterday. Meanwhile the provincial presidents of SSP and TJP have gone underground to avoid arrests.

Our Timergara correspondent reported that scores of people linked to Tehrik Niaz-i-Shariat-i-Muhammadi (TNSM) were hauled up in raids conducted at various paces in Dir district. The administration said 30 TNSM activists had been held, but independent sources claimed that the round-ups were far more.

Several Western embassies have asked their nationals to cut short their visits to Pakistan and leave as soon as possible. Ms Hanna Cartar, research analyst for the UK Foreign Office, was one such foreign dignitary. She could not address a seminar in Peshawar on Thursday because of a call from the embassy.

A top Interior Ministry official, Tasneem Noorani, said ‘a number’ of activists belonging to outlawed groups were arrested throughout the country. President Pervez Musharraf, it may be recalled, had banned five Islamic groups in January. "We are expecting more arrests as the raids are still in progress," he said.

A senior intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said at least 264 suspected members of Jaish-i-Muhammad, Sipah-i-Sahaba, Lashkar-i-Taiba and other groups were arrested in the crackdown that was expected to last several days. Most of the arrests, he said, were made in Punjab province.

In the country’s commercial capital of Karachi, three FBI agents spent 90 minutes sifting through the twisted charred hulk of a Pakistan Navy shuttle bus blown apart Wednesday by what Pakistani police believe was a suicide bomber in a nearby car.

Meanwhile, the administration rounded up 71 people, 50 from Karachi, 15 from Hyderabad and six from Sahiwal (Punjab). The detainees reportedly belong to Jaish-i-Muhammad, Sipah-i-Sehaba Pakistan and Tehrik-i-Jafria Pakistan.

One report claimed three other French technicians, who sustained critical injuries in the suicide blast, died in Karachi hospitals. The deaths of Daylily Janpraiy, Palsy Grouches and Christopher at Agha Khan and Civil Hospitals have raised French fatalities to 14.

Musharraf ordered his security forces on maximum alert. Police were also erecting cement barricades on the roads outside luxury hotels in the tense Karachi neighbourhood to prevent another attack. Roads outside the US Consulate in Karachi were closed to traffic as were streets leading to the residence of the American consul general.

The general also directed heightened security along the border with Afghanistan, where US-led coalition forces are looking for remaining al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters in mountain hide-outs.

French Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, who arrived Thursday to consult with Pakistani officials, said French investigators were already in Pakistan. The French workers were in Pakistan to help with construction of a French submarine bought by the Pakistani Navy. Alliot-Marie said work on the submarine would continue.

While stressing it was too early to say who was behind the bombing, the French minister said the bombing was "part of the larger terrorist movement against which the international coalition is fighting”. She praised Musharraf for his "brave choice" to join the U.S.-led war on terrorism after Sept. 11, and said Wednesday's attack only strengthened France's resolve.

Alliot-Marie was flanked by scores of heavily armed Pakistan Naval Police as she visited the 12 wounded French engineers at the Aga Khan hospital in the heart of Karachi. The wounded later left Pakistan for France on a German military plane.

"We think this bombing was the result of Pakistan's support for the international community in the war against terrorism," Information Minister Nisar Memon said, adding that Pakistan would persist in its efforts. "We have taken more measures to combat terrorism."

France began repatriating survivors of a suicide bombing that killed 11 of its nationals as Pakistani police announced the arrest of 23 men with suspected links to the al-Qaeda terrorist network.

Alliot-Marie later visited the scene of the horrific bombing, where wreckage of the Pakistan navy bus and the bomber's car lay in mangled heaps on the driveway of the luxury hotel. Security was extremely tight as Alliot-Marie inspected the scene of devastation accompanied by senior Pakistani police and local officials.

Safiullah Gul Pakistan

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