Extremists challenge Pakistan

The rebels have given the president a Nov. 7 deadline to end his support of US airstrikes on Afghanistan.

SHINGLIBALLA, PAKISTAN

Angry bands of Himalayan rebels unload their ancient carbines and new machine guns across the ancient Silk Road, vowing to avenge what they call US murders of their ethnic kin inside neighboring Afghanistan.

The only thing passing through the blocked road beneath them is a lone camel loaded down with water and some food rations destined for militants farther up the highway. For the rebels, supplies are moved by a six-seat cable car that is run by a diesel-powered engine.

Farther up, a little north of the town of Batgram and south of Bisham, unarmed villagers roll boulders away from a five-day blockade that the government claims has been lifted, but which rebel leaders say they expect back in place within days if Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf does not make concessions to the country's religious right.

Threat looms

The Silk Road blockade and threat of similar stoppages present a major challenge to President Musharraf. His government only recently broke off ties with several of these militant Islamic religious groups - ones that are extremely loyal to Osama bin Laden, who would like nothing better than to see the pro-Western government fall. And it's clear that is something Musharraf fears: He has repeatedly asked the United States in recent days to finish up its bombing campaign against neighboring Afghanistan before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins.

"These extremists and their leaders are targeting the Musharraf government, but, in fact, they want to turn Pakistan into another Islamic state that will defy the West," says Imtiaz Alam, a senior columnist with The News, a leading English-language daily in Pakistan. "These extremist groups, which still don't have any broad support, are in a good position now to capitalize on the simmering anti-Americanism in Pakistan over the airstrikes in Afghanistan."

There is already ample evidence that this snaking stretch of macadam leading toward China's Xinjiang province is fast becoming fertile ground for Mr. bin Laden's twisted vision of Islam.

His picture is being sold in the local bazaars like Michael Jordan basketball cards in Washington. And the militants, when asked where their loyalties lie, shout: "Long live Osama bin Laden," and "Long live Mullah Omar," the senior cleric and ruler of Afghanistan. After each rousing cheer echoes across the terraced hillsides and through the dense pine forests, the armed men fire off rounds to let Pakistan's Frontier Constabulatory on patrol down the road know that they aren't in a mood to bargain.

The Pakistani rebels, who are leading an on-again and off-again 250-mile-long blockade of Pakistan's Karakorum Highway, have given Musharraf a Nov. 7 deadline to end his support for US-led airstrikes on Afghanistan and free militant Islamic leaders who he has placed under house arrest.

Religious underpinnings

Here in Shingliballa, the organizer of the blockade is a well-kempt young man who fits the description of Taliban hardliners in neighboring Afghanistan. He is Aman Ullah, a religious scholar. He is also a teacher at the local madrassah and a member of a jihad group known as the Harakat ul Mujahideen, a "terrorist group" that US officials say is closely linked with bin Laden's Al Qaeda network. About a week ago, two dozen members of the Harakat group were killed by a US airstrike in a suburb of Kabul normally used by Afghan military personnel and their families. The group's leaders vowed after the deaths to take 10 US lives for every member that had died.

"We blocked the road so our leaders could cross safely into Afghanistan and make arrangements for our people to fight with the Taliban if and when the US ground invasion begins," says the 20something Mr. Ullah.

Ullah, who was stepping into a cable car on the Silk Road on his way back to Shingliballa, does not pack a firearm. But, it appears that he has plenty of wild-eyed Pashtun rebels in the hills ready to move when he calls.

The leader of the pack

The blockade's young organizer - who was, himself, present as government negotiators persuaded the rebels to pull back their siege of the highway - warned that blockades and seizures could quickly spill over into other areas, should the government continue with its backing for Washington's attacks.

Despite agreeing to a temporary respite from their siege yesterday, rebels up the road in the small village of Shingliballa are clearly throwing the gauntlet down at the president's feet.

"If the government does not accept our demand that he end all support for the US bombing of our brothers in Afghanistan, our boys will close down the road once and for all," says the elderly Mullah Mohammad Akhbar, the religious and political chief here.

Analysts in Lahore and Islamabad are warning that road blockades, which have also included the seizure of a remote airstrip adjacent to the Silk Road in the town of Chilas, are the start of a broader campaign by the Council for the Defence of Afghanistan to try to destabilize the entire country. The Council is controlled by two senior religious clerics, Maulana Sami ul Haq and Maulana Fazlur Rehman, who had been placed under house arrest at the outset of the US strikes on Afghanistan.

The Shingliballa rebels, like other bands farther north of here, are a motley assortment of former Afghan mujahideen and Kashmir militants. Most are Pashtun peasants aggrieved by the deaths of their fellow tribesmen across the border in western Afghanistan.

Tens of thousands of impoverished Pashtuns from Afghanistan live in thin tents in the Himalayan highlands, subsisting on government handouts or nothing at all.

Crowds of Pakistani Pashtuns from across the nearby mountains gather daily in the valley beneath Shingliballa to trade rumors about what Musharraf's next move would be.

Abdul Rehman, who also claims to be an organizer of the roadblocks says, "We are taking control of northern Pakistan because the American government is slaughtering our fellow Muslims. They blame the Sept. 11 attacks on Osama, but we know it was a Jewish conspiracy."

Mr. Rehman pointed to the steep Himalayan hillsides in all four directions: "We have 4,000 fighters ready to defend this highway. We are demanding that the attacks on Afghanistan end, that Pakistan stop supporting them, that Musharraf release our leaders, and that Pakistan become a country guided by Sharia [Islamic law.]

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