by Nadeem Iqbal
(IPS) ISLAMABAD --
the last eight days, more than 4,000 religious armed militants have been holding hostage some 1.5 million people who reside in Pakistan's mountainous Northern Areas by cutting off the highway that is the only road link with China.
The blockade, which started on Oct. 24, is being carried out by the extremists of local religious parties, who have blasted the mountains and rolled down rocks and boulders on many places blocking the strategically vital Karakoram highway.
Maulana Ahmed, one of the leaders of these groups, said that they are undertaking the blockade to protest the support of the government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf for the United States in its war against Afghanistan. They are demanding that the government review its policy on Afghanistan and withdraw its support to the United States.
He said that these actions would continue until the government changes its policy.
The religious parties are part of Pakistan-Afghan Defense Council, a broad-based alliance of more than two dozen religious parties of the country that has been holding protest rallies throughout the country in the weeks after the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States and Washington's attacks against Afghanistan.
Their reactions reflect one aspect of the many pressures that the government of President Musharraf is under after Islamabad chose to distance itself from the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and side with Washington's "war against terrorism" -- angering Islamic groups and parties in the country in the process.
In a protest rally last week in eastern Lahore city, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, chief of the Jamat-I-Islami party, said that religious groups were planning sit-in protests in Islamabad calling for Musharraf's resignation.
"We will go to Islamabad with full force and we will ask all religious parties to participate," he said. "We will not call off the sit-in until the Musharraf government quits."
The militants have also taken over the airstrip of Chilas city amid speculations that the airstrip is being handed over to the United States use in its nearly one-month old air strikes against Afghanistan. The airstrip is an emergency landing facility for civilian and military aircraft.
There are reports that armed zealots had put landmines at various points along the Karakoram highway.
Besides being equipped with sophisticated weapons including rocket launchers, thousands of armed tribesmen have positioned themselves on mountain slopes on both sides of the Karakoram Highway to thwart efforts to end the blockade.
The 610-km long highway originates near Islamabad and zigzags though the highest mountain range up until the border with China. The Northern Areas are located at the intersection of three majestic mountain ranges of the Karakoram, Hindu Kush and Western Himalayas.
Hundreds of students of religious schools are also roaming in Chilas and have taken over control of oil supply to the cities. There has also been a jailbreak in Chilas district prison and 61 prisoners had escaped.
emanating from the area say that the blockade has been prompted by Al-Rasheed Trust, an organization that has been placed on a terrorist list by the United States. One of its leaders had participated in a two-day religious conference held in the city of Besham, and the blockade started the very next day.
Meanwhile, tensions are high and heavy contingents of frontier constabulary and paramilitary troops have been dispatched to the Northern Areas. There are reports that at least one army officer was injured in firing between the protesters and law enforcement agencies.
Officials in Islamabad said that so far, their approach has been to avoid any clash with the armed protestors and instead try to resolve the issue through negotiations.
Meantime, hundreds of travelers have been stranded on both sides of the blockade. Also stranded is a Chinese relief convoy consisting of some 39 containers loaded with relief goods for the Afghan people.
Abdullah Shah, a resident of Gilgit city, told IPS that he had come into Islamabad to make some purchases but because of the blockade could not go to the Northern Areas by bus. Instead, he had to go by air and bear the cost of this more expensive means of transport. But even then, for the last five days he has not been able to get seats on flights.
The only link to Northern Areas now is by air, but even this would be suspended if the weather gets a bit bad because it is always dangerous to fly in the high mountain ranges.
The worst hit are the people of the Northern Areas, who are already suffering acute economic crisis. The main source of their income is tourism, but due to the war in Afghanistan not a single tourist has entered in the area.
The blockade, which has caused extreme shortages of petroleum and food products, has added to their misery because the area is dependent on the rest of the country for the supply of these basic items.
Northern Area officials had warned of severe food and fuel shortages if the blockade continues.
"The situation is not so bad now. We still have food supplies and enough fuel to last for another couple of days. But things may become bad if the road is not reopened in the next three to four days," Fida Muhammad, deputy chief executive of the Northern Areas, said in a telephone interview from Gilgit.
Fida added that patients referred for specialized treatment in Islamabad, as well as students and government servants, were all stuck in the Northern Areas because of the blockade.
He said the Northern Areas Legislative Council had sent their speaker, executive council members and an influential religious leader to hold talks and use their influence on the religious lobby and help remove the blockade.
The Northern Areas Legislative Council (NALC) has already unanimously condemned the Karakoram highway blockade. At a special session, the NALC members demanded that the government take action to clear the highway and ensure safe journey on it.
November 2, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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