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Pakistan's president pleads for unity

Pakistanis watching the president's address


Pakistan's president General Pervez Musharraf has warned his people that the country is facing its biggest crisis for 30 years. In a televised address to the nation, the president appealed for unity in the face of widespread protests against the government's decision to cooperate with the United States.

Washington has threatened military strikes against neighbouring Afghanistan unless the ruling Taliban hands over the suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden, who has been accused of masterminding last week's attacks in the US.

In an effort to appease Pakistan's 140 million-strong population, the president insisted that the United States' decision to go after bin Laden was not an attack on Islam or the people of Afghanistan.

He said Washington's targets were bin Laden, his Al-Qaida organisation and the Taliban rulers who had given him shelter. "The fight is against terrorism, a battle that has the support of all Islamic countries," said Musharraf.

During his address, the president revealed that he had sent a letter to the Taliban's spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, stressing "the gravity of the situation".

Grave situation

"All my efforts have been to somehow find a solution out of this grave situation so that Afghanistan and the Taliban don't suffer," he said. "This is what I have been trying to do, and what I will keep trying."

Musharraf added that he was asking the US to reveal the evidence against bin Laden and to show tolerance in any future action.

In the Afghan capital Kabul, hundreds of Afghan clerics have been meeting to decide whether to extradite bin Laden, or back the Taliban's call for a jihad, or holy war, against the United States in case of an attack.

Over in Washington, President George W Bush again urged world leaders to aid the US openly or even covertly in a campaign against terrorism and those responsible for the attacks in New York and Washington, which left nearly 6,000 people missing or dead. "Help us to round up these people, " he said.

This was a theme taken up by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld during a television interview with CNN television in which he declared that the US response to the attacks must stretch beyond finding bin Laden.

Terrorist networks

"This is not a problem of Al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden," he said. "It is a problem of a number of networks of terrorists that have been active across the globe." Rumsfeld added that there was evidence that bin Laden and his associates were operating in 50 to 60 countries, including the United States.

Meanwhile the United Nations has begun drawing up urgent plans to feed and shelter the thousands of Afghans trying to flee the country. Aid workers say millions of Afghans face serious food and water shortages, and are already being forced to eat grass and animal fodder.

The Geneva-based United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has asked all countries neighbouring Afghanistan to open their borders to a possible flood of refugees.

"It is important that we should mitigate their sufferings and be able to help them as quickly as possible," said UNHCR spokesman Yussuf Hassan. "I think the world has to respond very quickly to the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in this region."

UN international staff and almost all foreign nationals working for non-governmental organisations pulled out of Afghanistan because of the threat of military strikes against bin Laden and the Taliban.

swissinfo with agencies


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