Pakistani Islamic Party Threatens U.S. Air Base
Thursday, November 01, 2001 11:55 AM EST
DALBANDIN, Pakistan (Reuters) - A radical Islamic party spearheading anti-U.S. protests in Pakistan on Thursday threatened to burn down an air base used by American troops and kill any American soldiers found there.
But local leaders of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI) told Reuters party followers would only take such action as a last resort if Pakistani military ruler General Pervez Musharraf did not withdraw support for U.S. military strikes on Afghanistan's ruling Taliban.
``When our central leadership gives a call to surround this airport, we will burn the airport that has been used by dirty Americans to bomb the proud Afghan Muslims and will cut to pieces any American found there,'' Dalbandin JUI General Secretary Maulana Hafiz Hussain Ahmed said.
Dalbandin, in the southwestern province of Baluchistan, is about 40 miles from the Afghan border and hardly 50 miles from the site of Pakistan's first nuclear test in the remote Chagai mountains in May 1998.
JUI long known as sympathetic to the Taliban, has a strong following in Baluchistan and says it has hundreds of thousands of supporters across Pakistan, although its electoral success has been limited.
Pakistan has allowed the Americans to use three air fields for logistical support and search and rescue operations linked to the attacks on Afghanistan, but has said no military operations may be launched from its soil
Officials have said Dalbandin is the main base, backed up by heavily guarded fields in Jacobabad in southern Sindh province and the remote coastal town of Pasni.
AMERICANS KEEP LOW PROFILE
But JUI leaders and military officials said there were no American aircraft parked at Dalbandin on Thursday when troops stopped this Reuters correspondent from going toward the airfield at a barrier blocking the road.
One guard pointed toward two small planes, which could not be distinguished because of the clouds of dust and sand sweeping the wind-blown desert area, and said: ``They are our own.''
Local residents said American helicopters had been landing at Dalbandin at night and flying out again before daylight, although the flights had not been heard for several days.
The movements of U.S. planes and the presence of Pakistani troops had not dampened local support for Afghanistan's hardline Taliban. Posters of their ``guest'' -- Saudi-born militant Osama bin Laden -- were widely displayed in stores and restaurants.
Around the airfield, a brand new barbed wire fence had been erected.
At least two Americans were killed during a search and rescue mission during the only known commando raid into Afghanistan last month.
Security was tight in the small desert town of some 8,000 inhabitants that lies on the main road from Pakistan to Iran and on into Europe that is known locally as the London road.
Scores of troops and paramilitary militia were patrolling the streets and sandbagged posts had been thrown up near key buildings at crossroads.
Residents said they estimated about 5,000 security forces had been sent to the isolated desert town, resulting in water shortages in an area already suffering from one of the worst droughts in recent memory.
The economy of the town, where many people rely on smuggling with Iran for their livelihood, was also suffering due to the heavy security presence, residents said.
The first of several extra road blocks was positioned some six miles outside the town, and at one major road junction a sign to Dalbandin had been whitewashed out.
Local residents said they were offering prayers daily in the mosques for a Taliban victory over the U.S. campaign.
``We say they should leave the base immediately because we fear that this will be used by America to launch attacks by ground forces,'' Maulana Ahmed said, adding that local Islamic groups were planning protests in the town after Friday prayers.
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