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Thousands Protest Pakistan's Pledge of Support to US - 2001-09-21

Thousands of protesters across Pakistan have condemned their country's leader's decision to support the United States in the effort to get alleged terrorist Osama bin Laden.

Shouting "death to American soldiers" and long live Osama bin Laden and the Taleban, nearly 3,000 angry protesters gathered in the heart of the Pakistani capital following Friday prayers. The protesters warned their government against supporting the United States if it decides to attack neighboring Afghanistan. Hundreds of heavily armed police stood by and watched the protest but there was no violence.

Speaking to the crowd, a local religious leader, Mohammad Rasool, said many Pakistanis are ready to destroy the United States if it attacks Afghanistan.

One demonstrator, Kamran Khan, says any attack against the Afghan people will be an attack on Islam. "Now it is a test to co-exist with Islam," Mr. Khan said. "It is a religious war and it is going to be a religious war because they are attacking a religious territory [Afghanistan]."

Another participant of the rally, Ahmad Kareem carried a banner criticizing Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf. Ahmad Kareem says there is no evidence to show Osama Bin Laden carried out the attacks that killed more than 6,000 people in the United States. "We are not against America, we are not against Christians or Jews," Mr. Kareem says. "What we are against are attack on Afghanistan without evidence [that bin Laden is behind the attacks]."

Many in the crowd, like Shaharyar Khan, said they believed Saudi fugitive Osama bin Laden is innocent of the terrorism charges. "We want proper investigation should be conducted and on that result everything should be concluded," he said. "But they have got no proof that Osama bin Laden did that."

Friday's protests were called by more than two dozen pro-Taleban religious parties in Pakistan. Qazi Hussein Ahmed, who heads Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan's largest Islamic political party, says there is widespread opposition in Pakistan to supporting the United States. "We oppose the decision made by [General] Pervez Musharraf['s] government to bow to the unjust pressure and accepting the demands of providing airspace and logistical support to the unilateral action of U.S. administration," Mr. Ahmed says. "The U.S. attitude threatening Afghanistan and Pakistan without providing solid evidence has no justification."

Similar demonstrations were held in major cities throughout Pakistan. Some violence was reported.

U.S. officials have asked Pakistan to provide the use of its airspace, and to close it border with Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect behind the attacks on U.S. facilities is reported to be hiding.

For his part, Pakistan's President General Musharraf has said that going against the global effort to end terrorism would put in jeopardy Pakistan's national survival, its economy, its nuclear program, and Pakistan's dispute with India over Kashmir.