Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf escalated a crackdown on Islamic militants yesterday, saying that all foreign students studying in Pakistan’s estimated 10,000 madrassas would be expelled from the country.
He also said that no visas would be issued to foreigners wishing to study at the religious schools that have been blamed for breeding terrorists such as the London subway bombers.
“All foreigners are to be removed [and] an ordinance to this effect will be adopted in the next coming days,” Gen. Musharraf told reporters in the capital, Islamabad.
Gen. Musharraf was adamant that madrassas, or religious schools, would be reprimanded for preaching anti-Western rhetoric.
“We will not allow madrassas to be misused for extremism, hatred being projected in our society,” he said. “I don’t want to arrest the workers. I want the leaders of the banned groups. I’m not impressed by figures. We want to get all of the bigwigs.”
Gen. Musharraf has been the target of three failed assassination attempts by banned extremist groups within the country.
An estimated 1,400 foreign students, composed largely of Middle Eastern and North African citizens, are believed to be receiving Koranic education in Pakistan’s religious schools.
“They must leave,” Gen. Musharraf said. “No more visas will be issued to such people.”
Pakistan has come under the spotlight since reports that at least two of the four July 7 London suicide bombers — Britons of Pakistani descent — visited religious schools in Pakistan a few months before the attacks.
Gen. Musharraf’s statements come at the end of a whirlwind week for Pakistani anti-terrorism forces who have rounded up nearly 600 suspected religious extremists.
However, Pakistani and British officials have said there is so far no connection between the arrests and the London bombers.
Security forces yesterday killed a suspected militant at a religious school after a shootout in the country’s erratic Northwest Frontier Province, which borders Afghanistan. Authorities say arms and explosives also were found at the seminary.
Analysts say the London bombings have provided a new impetus for Pakistan to reign in home-grown extremists and flush out their foreign students.
“It’s a positive step, but I’m surprised it was not done much earlier,” said Teresita Schaffer, director of the South Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“It’s much easier to take action against the foreign students that are in the [religious] schools in Pakistan. It certainly ensures that the London bomber’s younger brothers won’t be able to do the same thing,” she said.
Gen. Musharraf discussed steps to combat extremism in a telephone conversation with President Bush earlier this week.
The Bush administration declined to comment yesterday on Pakistan’s latest move, but it voiced support for Gen. Musharraf’s efforts to rein in extremism.
“He is a good partner in the global war on terrorism,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. “He recognizes the enemy and the nature of the enemy that we are up against. And he spoke about the steps that he’s taken to go after those who espouse this extremist ideology — this ideology that preaches hate, this ideology that preaches violence against innocent civilians.”
This article is based in part on wire service reports.