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Pakistan Bans 3 Islamic Groups, Places 4th on Watch List - 2003-11-16

Pakistan is cracking down on four religious groups accused of having links to terrorism. The groups had earlier been banned and reorganized under new names. One opposition group is already are talking about challenging the move.

President Pervez Musharraf on Saturday banned three of the groups.

The groups' offices have been sealed and their bank accounts frozen, and their senior leaders are now under surveillance.

The government placed a fourth group on a watch list, leaving open the possibility of future action.

All four represent renamed and reorganized versions of groups that Pakistan outlawed two years ago as terrorist networks.

Two of the originally banned groups, the Lashkar-e Taiba and the Jaish-e Mohammed, have been named as terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department.

Pakistan Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayat says the government originally had taken a wait-and-see approach to the new versions of the banned groups. "We had been pursuing a relatively cautious policy in the manner that we had been asking these activists and these groups to refrain from public activity," said Mr. Hayat, "and we had sought to give them ample time to reform themselves. … But now it has transpired that they could not fulfill those requirements or those obligations."

Mr. Hayat would not specify what the groups had done to prompt this new ban but said there was evidence they had violated anti-terror laws.

Moments after the ban was announced, police arrested a senior leader of one group, apparently in connection with the October assassination of a noted Sunni cleric in Islamabad.

But the crackdown may spark political debate. Qazi Hussein Ahmed is a senior member of Parliament and the leader of Jamaat-e Islami, Pakistan's oldest religious party.

He says the banned groups have no ties to militants.

He notes that one organization is part of the Muttahida Majlis-e Amal, the major opposition alliance of religious parties, which also includes Mr. Ahmed's group. He says the alliance will challenge the government's actions and may hold protest rallies.

"As far as Tehrik-e Islami is concerned," said Mr. Ahmed, "it is a part of MMA, and it is a political organization, it is not a militant organization."

Pakistan has come under foreign pressure recently to rein in militant groups.

In a speech last week, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan named two of the groups as posing a danger to both Pakistan and the United States.