- The Washington Times - Friday, July 21, 2000

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan The military government that seized power in October is finalizing plans to disarm up to 1 million Islamic militants, including thousands in a group labeled as terrorist by the United States, a senior army spokesman said Thursday.

"The government is working on a schedule that will be announced very soon to ask for collection of all prohibited-bore weapons and unlicensed weapons" held by militant groups, Maj. Gen. Rashid Qureshi said in an interview.

"We have to be gradual and get the people with us before deweaponizing," said Gen. Qureshi, director general of Inter-Services Public Relations.

The militant groups have formed a state within the state and are so powerful that journalists, politicians and even the military fear to openly criticize them, according to several prominent Pakistanis who feared to be quoted.

Four major Islamic groups are expected to be targeted by the army for weapons collection, including Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, which was listed by the U.S. State Department on its annual terrorist list.

The group was known as Har-kat-ul-Ansar when in 1995 it kidnapped five foreign tourists in Indian-controlled Kashmir, including two Americans. Four of the tourists are believed to have been murdered; one was beheaded.

The militant groups began to emerge in 1989 after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan left thousands of weapons and fighters available for a new cause the liberation of Kashmir from India.

The training and arming of militants by Harkat and by the equally powerful Lashkr-e-Tayyeba created a subculture of heavily armed zealots that the army and Pakistan's elite class fear could try to seize power.

"The militants have more men under arms than the Pakistani army's 500,000 troops," said one political figure closely linked to senior army leaders.

"They have 2 million armed militants," said the political figure, who added that he was skeptical the army would dare to try to seize their weapons, regardless of Gen. Qureshi's remarks Thursday.

The general, who trained 20 years ago at Fort Benning, Ga., and is considered close to Pakistan's chief executive, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, said the government had already prepared the ground for weapons collection by banning public display of weapons several months ago.

The ban came after the United States and other countries protested at the hijacking of an Indian Airlines passenger jet last winter. The hijacking ended when India released three prominent Pakistani militants who went on to lead tumultuous, armed rallies in Pakistan threatening America, Israel and India.

Fearful of being branded supporters of terrorism, Pakistan's military government while insisting it still supported what it called freedom fighters in Kashmir has tried to keep the militants from displaying the guns in public.

The next step, said Gen. Qureshi, is to beef up local police forces "so we can provide security to civilians."

"Then we move to deweaponization within less than a few months."

After all weapons with larger caliber than that of the police are collected, the government will collect all fully automatic weapons and unlicensed weapons, he said.

Aside from the Islamic groups, there are many tribal areas along the border of Afghanistan and Iran where clans defend themselves with automatic rifles and shotguns a long-standing tradition as well a necessity in an area without much central or provincial security in place.

Gen. Qureshi gave no indication the weapons collection would aim at those tribal groups.

A Western diplomat said Wednesday in Islamabad that the government is paralyzed by four large armed groups that are transporting militants into the Indian portion of Kashmir.

The military spokesman said Pakistan needs to turn from its never-ending security concerns which range from the militant groups to the militarized border with India, to sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shi'ites to the movement of terrorists in and out of Afghanistan.

"There is no doubt in anyone's mind, including the military, that we need economic progress and need peace," he said. "There is no doubt in the army that we have no business running a country."

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