Friday, November 9, 2001

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban regime suffered a propaganda blow yesterday with word that Pakistan had barred its local ambassador from holding any further embassy press conferences a further clampdown on pro-Taliban voices in Pakistan.
Pakistani authorities also ordered the Taliban to close its consulate in the southern port city of Karachi. President Pervez Musharraf said the southern consulate was “not serving any purpose” and was “having negative effects”.
In Karachi, authorities deployed extra security forces and drew up lists of radical suspects ahead of nationwide protests called by Islamic parties opposed to U.S. air strikes in Afghanistan.
This weekend, Gen. Musharraf will meet with President Bush on the sidelines of a major U.N. conference in New York.
With the daily briefing canceled at the embassy in Islamabad, foreign reporters were reduced yesterday to loitering in front of its white metal gate, where a guard armed with an assault rifle grinned.
The embassy press conferences have provided a forum for Ambassador Abdul Salaam Zaeef to issue frequently unverifiable claims about Afghan civilian casualties and America’s “genocide.”
The Pakistani government muzzled the ambassador, citing the “third-country rule” of etiquette, which states that no embassy should be used to publicly denounce a third country. The government had already cautioned Mr. Zaeef about the tone of his rhetoric.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Aziz Ahmed Khan said the Taliban’s consulate staff in Karachi “have to be withdrawn, so naturally they have to go back to Afghanistan.”
The Taliban still retains a consulate in Peshawar. Pakistan is the only country that recognizes the fundamentalist Islamic regime.
“I think it is bad not to have Taliban press conferences, because it makes it difficult to get a balanced story,” complained an East Asian journalist standing in the dirt next to the embassy’s driveway. “The Americans have press conferences, and so does the United Nations. If the Taliban can’t have press conferences, it is not fair.”
Terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden had already accused Pakistan in a letter Nov. 1 of siding with Christians against Muslims, saying its government “has fallen under the banner of the cross.”
Pakistan’s military dictatorship also faces widespread criticism from the Pakistani public and media for allowing the U.S. Air Force to use at least three of its airports for military missions into Afghanistan.
U.S. diplomats insisted they did not push Pakistan to cancel the Taliban’s daily news conferences.
“I don’t think there’s been any benefit to us, because [the Taliban ambassador] is still able to talk to the media,” an American diplomat said in an interview.
“You can see the Taliban ambassador wrote an op-ed piece in a Pakistani newspaper and he had dinner with some Pakistani editors, so they are still getting the message out.”
Referring to his new constraints, Mr. Zaeef told local editors: “If people knew about the atrocities being perpetrated on us, then international aid and international sympathy would be there for us.”
The Taliban ambassador had become a familiar face on the world’s television screens with his afternoon briefings from the embassy’s front porch. Sitting behind a table crammed with microphones, he answered questions from dozens of foreign correspondents who stood or sat on the front lawn.
But as the Taliban propaganda effort has been scaled back, U.S. officials are intensifying their public relations campaign.
“We put out press releases, have briefings and post news on our home page,” the American diplomat said. “We also issue Dari and Pushtu news releases in those two languages.

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