- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 18, 2002

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan A school that has educated children of Christian missionaries for nearly a half-century has closed for the next year after an attack on the campus by Islamic extremists that killed six persons, the director said yesterday.

"Given the trauma to the children and the possibility of further attacks, we cannot run a school that offers social and emotional support for children at this time," Russell Morton said in a telephone interview from the Murree Christian School, about 40 miles northeast of the capital, Islamabad.

Authorities say that three armed men who burst through the gates of the school Aug. 5 belonged to the same group of Islamic extremists that four days later attacked a Christian hospital, killing three nurses with grenades. A fourth nurse later died of injuries.

The extremists are believed to be targeting Christians and Westerners in Pakistan in retaliation for the government's support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

The school attackers were believed to have blown themselves up with grenades the day after their assault, and at least one of the militants who attacked the hospital died on the scene. Police say they have arrested numerous members of a band of 15 to 20 extremists that executed the attacks and was planning others. At least seven suspected militants were arrested in Lahore and were bound over yesterday for trial.

Still, there are fears that a new wave of terrorism has begun in Pakistan, and many Western governments have urged their nationals to leave the country.

None of the Murree Christian School's 150 students, who hail from 20 countries, was injured in the attack. The school board decided that closing the school was the only way to ensure their safety, Mr. Morton said.

"It's desperately sad for the children who have become extraordinarily attached to the school," he said. "They're children who have a lot of change in their lives, for whom the school represents something unchangeable."

The board will decide by May whether to reopen for the next school year. The school year begins in early August and concludes at the end of June, with a long winter break.

The school's small campus, dominated by an imposing stone and stain-glassed church building, is perched on a hillside in Murree, a picturesque resort town founded by the British in 1851 to give colonial administrators a refuge from the sweltering, disease-ridden lowlands during the summer.

Yesterday, the school was abandoned except for a few remaining staff members trying to make travel arrangements home, Mr. Morton said. School officials, who leased the property from the Church of Pakistan, have hired security guards to watch the three-acre site while it sits idle.

The missionaries who board their children at the school while they work in Pakistan are making other arrangements, including home-schooling, Mr. Morton said.

The school shut down soon after the September 11 terror attacks in the United States but reopened in February, when officials decided it was safe to return to Pakistan. Once again, they believe leaving is their wisest option.

Pakistani Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider yesterday said his government was taking steps to reduce the influence of hard-line clerics and rid Pakistan of terrorist groups. The government was focusing on reforming the Islamic school system, he said.

Pakistan became a key ally of the United States in the war against terrorism after President Pervez Musharraf abandoned support for the Taliban following the September 11 attacks.

Pakistani officials say the government has handed over more than 300 suspected al Qaeda members to the United States. They were captured in the remote tribal areas along the Afghan border and in raids in Faisalabad, Lahore and other major cities. A number of Pakistanis were also arrested during U.S. operations in Afghanistan.

Islamabad is seeking the release of some of the 58 Pakistanis held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, because they are not hard-core al Qaeda members, Mr. Haider said yesterday.

He said a team of Pakistan anti-terrorism experts had visited Guantanamo recently to interrogate Pakistanis and others held there. Most of them were not al Qaeda members but simply ordinary people who went to Afghanistan to fight for the Taliban during last year's U.S. military campaign, he said.

He hinted at the possible release of some of the prisoners but did not say how many or when. Gen. Musharraf, who plans to travel to the United States next month for the annual U.N. General Assembly session in New York, is expected to discuss the matter with U.S. officials.

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