Pakistan leader walking fine line

General tells faithful nation's fate at stake

Terrorism Strikes America

The World

September 20, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Quoting from the Quran and dressed in his military uniform, Pakistan's ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, assured his nation in a television address last night that his decision to help the United States search for Osama bin Laden would not threaten Islam.

Musharraf said Pakistan's future was at stake and urged his people to resist pleas by Muslim clerics for a nationwide strike tomorrow in support of Afghanistan's ruling Taliban. He warned religious extremists against attempts to plunge Pakistan into chaos.

"My fellow countrymen, in the present circumstance, a wrong decision can lead to an end which would be unbearable," Musharraf said in Urdu on national television. "I appeal to the Pakistan majority that they should show wisdom and that these people who want to harm Pakistan should be put aside."

The Pakistani leader said the United States had asked his country for the use of its airspace, logistical support and a sharing of intelligence about Afghanistan.

He said the U.S. request for Pakistan's help in finding the perpetrators of terrorist attacks in New York and Washington last week had created the most dangerous time for Pakistan since its last war with India, in 1971.

"Pakistan is passing through a very delicate phase," he said. "If we make a mistake now, it will affect our future."

His spoke as the Taliban called for the first time for talks with the United States over demands that Afghanistan turn over bin Laden, whom Washington considers the top suspect in last week's attacks.

Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban's reclusive spiritual leader, announced the call for a council of Islamic clerics in the Afghan capital, Kabul, to ponder bin Laden's fate.

"We have not tried to create problems with America," Omar was quoted by Afghan Islamic Press as saying. "We have had several talks with the present and the past American governments, and we are ready for more talks."

Equipment confiscated

The Taliban say bin Laden could not have been involved in the attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon because their government had confiscated his communications equipment. Omar said the United States was using bin Laden as an excuse to try to destroy the "the true Islamic system in the world."

"They put the blame for Washington and New York on him," Omar said. "The question is how did Osama tell the pilots? And which airports did they use? And whose planes were those? The answer is that it is America.

"In this regard, Afghanistan does not have the resources, and neither does Osama have the strength or resources. He is not in contact with anyone, and neither have we given permission to anyone to use the Afghan land against anyone.

"We appeal to the American government to exercise complete patience, and we want America to gather complete information and find the actual culprits.

"We assure the whole world that neither Osama nor anyone else can use the Afghan land against anyone else."

The clerics might decide on bin Laden today.

Competing pressures

Musharraf has found himself under competing pressures from the United States and his countrymen. Cooperating with Washington could anger Pakistanis, but refusing to cooperate would risk endangering Pakistan's economy when the country is in need of aid.

"If you are facing two problems and you have to choose one, then it is better to take the lesser evil," Musharraf said last night.

"Pakistan is facing a very critical situation. The decision we take today can have far-reaching and wide-ranging consequences. The crises are too strong and too widespread.

"If we take the wrong decisions in this crisis, it can lead to even worse consequences. On the other hand, if we take the right decisions, its results will be good."

He said India poses the main threat to Pakistan and is seeking to have Pakistan "declared a terrorist state."

"It is very important that while the entire world is talking about this horrible terrorist attack, our neighboring country, instead of talking of peace and cooperation, is trying hard to harm Pakistan and defame Islam."

It was too early to gauge public reaction to his speech. Analysts generally gave Musharraf high marks for appealing to reason and taking a tough line on his critics.

"I think, under the circumstance, it was a good job," said Najmuddin A. Shaikh, a retired Pakistani foreign secretary and former ambassador to the United States.

"It put across the point that there are geopolitical realities and there is a need for pragmatism in government actions."

The real test of Musharraf's address might begin tomorrow, when people decide whether to take to the streets. Before Musharraf's address, an association of Pakistani Islamic organizations said it would back an order by Taliban clerics for a religious war if the United States attacked Afghanistan.

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