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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

AN ABORTED COUP?

There May Be More Behind the Recent Army Arrests


AN ARMY STAFF CAR escorts a truck to a customs checkpoint between Punjab and Northwest Frontier Province in northern Pakistan. A brigadier and a colonel in civilian clothes alight from the car and urge customs officials to let the truck pass. Just then, military intelligence officers appear and arrest the two men. A search of the truck reveals a cache of Kalashnikov rifles and rocket launchers. On the same day, 37 more army officers are secretly rounded up in the garrison city of Rawalpindi.

Those are the bare facts, as told by Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's government, of what occurred on Sept. 26. A month later, Pakistanis are still waiting for the full story. The government has said nothing more about the arrests.

According to reports in the local press, the officers were plotting "an Islamic coup" against the Bhutto government. They had allegedly planned to wipe out the entire army high command during a Sept. 30 conference of corps commanders in Islamabad. Most of the arrested officers are said to be aligned with hardline Muslim groups such as the Jamaat-i-Islami, which advocates transforming Pakistan into a fundamentalist Islamic state. The highest ranking officer reportedly arrested was Maj. Gen. Zahirul Islam Abbasi, director-general of the army's infantry.

Although rumors of the arrests had swept through Islamabad for weeks, the official silence was broken on Oct. 14, when Bhutto confirmed the arrests in a meeting with editors of local newspapers. "Some individuals are under investigation, but it is premature to say anything," she said, adding: "When the investigations are completed the nation will be taken into confidence." Bhutto made no comment on the reported coup.

Diplomats and politicians in Islamabad tell a different story. They say the arrested officers were not planning a coup, but were supplying arms to separatists fighting in Indian Kashmir. Bhutto, these sources say, was responding to pressure from Washington to crack down on military support to the rebels in violation of official policy. The U.S. has been seeking a solution to the Kashmir dispute and is eager to see an end to tensions between Islamabad and New Delhi.

This would not be the first time Bhutto has complied with Washington's wishes in security matters. In February, she agreed to a request to extradite Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the suspected mastermind of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York. Bhutto is hoping Washington will speed up delivery of a $370 million U.S. arms package, which had been held up for five years because of Pakistan's refusal to cap its nuclear program.

The arrested officers reportedly had links with the Pakistan-based militant group Harkat-e-Ansar, one of the forces from the Afghan war, and the Kashmiri separatist Hizbul Mujahideen group. Harkat-e-Ansar is believed to be allied with Al-Faran, a Kashmiri rebel group that kidnapped six Western tourists in Indian Kashmir last July and killed one of them. One tourist escaped and the rest are still being held hostage.

India accuses Pakistan of fomenting trouble in Kashmir, the only Muslim-majority state in the country. The two nations have fought two wars over the region. A line of control separates the Pakistan section of Kashmir from the larger Indian section. India charges Pakistan with arming and training Kashmiris and sending them across the border to fight Indian troops. Pakistan denies the charge, saying it extends only moral and political support to the rebellion.

That apparently was not always so. The army reportedly began organizing Kashmiri militants during the early 1980s under the rule of Gen. Zia-ul Haq. In the early 1990s, premier Nawaz Sharif, apparently acting under American pressure, put an end to direct involvement in Kashmir's insurgency. But politicians say the army continues to allow private, armed militant groups to infiltrate the Indian border.

In 1992, Pakistan nearly found itself on Washington's list of nations suspected of abetting terrorism. It is partly to erase that lingering stigma that Bhutto is believed to be cracking down on the army's alleged gun-running racket.

If Bhutto succeeds in cutting off aid to militants, it could defuse tensions in Kashmir. New Delhi has pledged to hold elections in the state in the coming months and has released several top Kashmiri leaders to pave the way for self-rule. Of course, that doesn't mean Kashmir will cease to be disputed territory. But once the shooting stops, both countries can at least sit down at the negotiating table.


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