Anti-U.S. protests rock Quetta

Deadly riots destroy U.N. agency, banks in Pakistan border city

War On Terrorism

The World

October 09, 2001|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

QUETTA, Pakistan - For a mob seething with anti-American feelings, it was the most obvious target: the Imdad Cinema, an old movie house known as the only place in this desert city where you can see an American film.

This week it featured the movie Desperado, with Antonio Banderas. Just before 9 a.m. yesterday, a surging crowd of 1,000 people marched down Jinnah Road chanting, "Death to America," and set to work destroying it.

"They saw the posters of an American movie," said Mehmood Sanfan, the owner. "They broke the doors in and put the cinema on fire. At first, the screen caught fire, and afterward the roof fell down, and all the seats and gallery and all the mechanical fittings.

"All of us are feeling sorry," he said, standing outside the entryway to the blackened remains of his theater. "It is an unbearable loss, and we'll have to pay the consequences."

So began a day of violent reaction to the attacks led by the United States against Afghanistan. The protests in this city of 1.2 million left one person dead and about 100 injured.

Karachi, Rawalpindi and Peshawar also experienced demonstrations yesterday, but none was as charged as those in Quetta. Just 85 miles from the Afghan border, Quetta shares such close ties with Afghanistan that it was as if the bombs fell on this city, too.

As news spread about the attacks on Kandahar, Kabul and other Afghan cities Sunday night, thousands of people here turned to the streets, blocking intersections with burning tires, hurling rocks through store fronts and seeking out anything that reminded them of the United States or the West.

But in a city with no McDonald's, U.S. Embassy or other clear symbols of America, the targets didn't seem to matter. Anything representing the outside world was enough. By the end of the day, the mobs had destroyed four banks, burned the headquarters for the United Nations Children's Fund, and torn up sections of sidewalk and road.

"I know that the people of Pakistan are with my government on all the decisions we have taken in the national interest," Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf told his nation early yesterday. "I'm very positive that the vast majority are with us."

But in Quetta, the minority was firmly against him. Here, pro-Taliban sympathies run strong and deep. More than half the residents are Pashtun, the same ethnic group as the majority of Afghans. They share the same language and culture and a bond that Pakistan's border with Afghanistan has never severed.

Quetta is also home to more than 500,000 Afghan refugees, many of whom remain fierce protectors of their homeland.

The militant Islamic Taliban government grew out of the Islamic schools based near Quetta, and the Taliban find tremendous support among many of the young students attending the institutions.

The protesters were not part of any one group, said witnesses. They were Pakistani and Afghan and were part of a number of independent mobs, each leaving a path of destruction.

It was a day that seemed to come to a boil, rising like the desert temperatures here that peaked at midday, when the mob appeared to have outwitted the police. Black plumes of smoke rose up from nearly every neighborhood in the center of town. The sound of gunshots could be heard in the street. And clouds of tear gas blew across the city, overwhelming police and residents, who dunked their heads in public fountains for relief.

Armored personnel carriers rumbled down streets, causing rickshaws and donkey carts to scurry to the side of the roads. In the sky, a single fighter jet circled the edges, adding another level of tension to an uneasy mood on the ground.

Journalists were confined to quarters, kept at the Serena Hotel, where they watched from the roof until the authorities took them on an armed tour of the city.

About 2 p.m., a final fire erupted in the northern end of Quetta at the UNICEF headquarters. Witnesses say about 100 to 150 people attempted to break into the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees office before giving up and going around the corner for the headquarters for UNICEF.

Both organizations are in the process of planning to accommodate thousands of Afghan refugees expected to flee across the Pakistani border.

"The crowd went around the corner to the UNICEF office. Motorcycles were taken out of the office onto the street and set on fire," said Rupert Colville, a UNHCR spokesman. "The building was set on fire, and five vehicles in the compound were also set on fire. It was absolutely terrifying for our staff."

The UNICEF office was the only building on the street touched by the mob. The skeletal remains of five staff cars remained in the neat row in which they were parked before they were set ablaze. Sefa Masha, owner of the building, watched the crowd chanting anti-American slogans destroy his building. "They were carrying kerosene, and they spread it on vehicles and set it on fire," he said. "There was no one to stop them."

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