Protests rock Pakistan Special report: Pakistan Staff and agencies Friday September 21, 2001 Angry protests in Pakistan brought parts of the country to a virtual standstill today as demonstrators rallied behind Islamic groups. Shops were closed and transport suspended as demonstrators made their voices heard in response to a nationwide strike called by Muslim clerics. It is the fifth consecutive day of protests in the country, but by far the most dramatic with police, their numbers boosted, firing tear gas into some boisterous crowds. Protestors are acting against their government's pledge on Wednesday to support American military strikes against neighbouring Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden, the chief suspect in last week's terrorist attacks in America, is defended by the Taliban. Despite ongoing negotiations Afghanistan's ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, announced today that Taliban rulers will not hand over Bin Laden without evidence. Asked if the Taliban would deliver him, said, "No," but his translator added, "No, not without evidence." Pakistanis near the Afghan border vowed to launch a war against Americans. Thousands of protesters swarmed the streets of Peshawar, in the north west, shouting anti-American and anti-Pakistani slogans. Burning a life-size effigy of the US president they shouted: "Long live Osama". "We will fight until the death and destruction of the United States," one sign read. "Crush America and Bush," read another. Hardline Islamic clerics fuelled the strength of feeling and told their listeners that they backed bin Laden and the Taliban leadership, which has protected him and his followers in Afghanistan for years. Hundreds of people watched the procession from rooftops and balconies in a city where most people are Pashtun, the same ethnic group predominating among the Taliban, and where there are two million Afghan refugees. Heavily armed police, estimated at 15,000, patrolled the city on foot and in tanks. Violence flared in Karachi, the country's biggest city and its commercial hub. The largest incident was in the Sohrab Goth neighbourhood, where an estimated 1,500 Afghan refugees clashed with police, burning tyres and attacking vehicles. In other parts of Karachi, police were forced to fire tear gas and beat people with iron-tipped sticks to disperse crowds pelting vehicles with stones and blocking roads. At least 70 demonstrators were arrested, police said. In other parts of the country such as the south west city of Quetta, Lahore and Islamabad, the capital, police were on guard, many in riot gear, but protests had not begun. Most shops and schools were ordered to close for their own safety. The general strike also closed schools, offices and shops in the northern Indian state of Jammu-Kashmir, where Islamic rebels are fighting for independence with the support of Pakistan. America has agreed to lift sanctions imposed on Pakistan and India and to reschedule $600m (£410m) in bilateral debt with Islamabad, a senior western diplomat said today. The diplomat, who asked not to be identified, said that "discernible progress" would be seen soon. Details of the surprise deal are reportedly being finalised at the moment and will allow a resumption of American assistance to Pakistan, which ended after sanctions were imposed for the nuclear tests it carried out in 1998. The news come after a fruitless year of talks under the Paris Club to reschedule Pakistan's bilateral debt. America will sign an agreement on rescheduling $600m worth of debt, part of Pakistan's $1.6bn debt considered by the Paris Club, in a move seen by many as a reward for Pakistan in return for its support of the US over its expected attacks against Pakistan's neighbour, Afghanistan. The US has turned to Pakistan because of its critical geographical position, on the border with Afghanistan and its ties to the Taliban regime. The Afghan Defence Council, an alliance of 35 religious and militant groups, has warned the Pakistani leader, general Musharraf, that his decision to back America could plunge the country into civil war. With almost a week of protests, which are becoming increasingly heated, and American strikes imminent, many Pakistanis fear civil war is inevitable. Yesterday, a grand Islamic council in Afghanistan met at the request of the Taliban leadership and took the decision to ask Bin Laden to leave voluntarily. It is not yet known if he will comply, or if a war could be averted even if he did.
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