Pakistan bans Muslim extremist groups

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Banning the two Islamic groups that India has blamed for recent atrocities committed on Indian soil, Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf told his nation last night that "the danger facing us is the internal danger that is eating us from within".

In an hour-long televised address that the United States and Britain hoped would defuse the tension that has gripped India and Pakistan since a suicide attack on the Indian parliament last month, Pakistan's military ruler promised to crack down on Islamic extremists inside Pakistan, "the people who are threatening the very fabric of our society". Banning Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad, the Army of the Pure and the Army of Mohammad, he declared, "No organisation will be allowed to carry out terrorism under the pretext of the Kashmir issue. Whoever will be involved in such acts, we will deal with them very stringently."

But he refused to revise Pakistan's traditional support for the right of Kashmiris to self-determination, saying of India's only Muslim-majority state: "Kashmir runs in our blood – no Pakistani can sever his relationship with Kashmir. We will continue to provide moral, diplomatic and principled support to Kashmir."

The dispute must be solved, he said, "by peaceful dialogue, in accordance with the wishes of the people of Kashmir and in accordance with UN resolutions". International peace-keepers should be allowed to monitor the activities of India's security forces, who, he said, were "an occupation force". He also flatly refused to hand 20 alleged terrorists to India, saying that if there was evidence against them they would face trial in Pakistan.

Immediate reaction to the speech in Delhi was disappointment that the much ballyhooed dramatic shift in Pakistani policy had failed to come to pass, combined with grudging respect for the commando-turned-military ruler who, as one commentator here put it, "is like a commando, very clever at changing tactics while keeping his strategy unchanged".

"There is no sense," the analyst, Dr Amitabh Matoo, continued, "of recognition that Pakistani policy in Kashmir is in a mess and must be revised in a radical manner. It is not a speech that is going to radically alter the shape of Indo-Pakistani relations. I doubt if it will lead to de-escalation at the border."

Another analyst said: "We were misled. We were led to believe the speech would signal a climbdown. This has not come through."

But the reluctant admiration in which the general is held in New Delhi continues undimmed. "His strategy is very clever," said another Indian commentator. "He is making an appeal to the West that he is a great reformer at home. And if the West wants him to succeed, they must put pressure on India to sort out Kashmir."

President Musharraf's speech, which aroused enormous expectations from Washington to Delhi and beyond, came as hundreds of thousands of Indian and Pakistani soldiers faced each other across the 1,200-mile long border, fully mobilised for war. On 13 December, five men tried to blast their way into the Indian parliament. Fourteen people died in the assault, which India blamed on the two organisations President Musharraf yesterday banned.

India decided that this assault on what one minister called "the national essence" was an atrocity too far. They demanded that the general do something as radical about taming Pakistani-sponsored terrorism in Kashmir as he had done under American pressure when he turned against his allies in Kabul, the Taliban.

Tit-for-tat diplomatic sanctions were followed by a full-scale mobilisation of India's army, the fourth largest in the world, as well as its air force and navy. Pakistan matched India step for step, and for the past three weeks the world has been holding its breath in dread of the first nuclear war.

The best that can now be hoped is that the clampdown on Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad, the two most vigorous militant groups active in Kashmir, leads to rapid improvement in the security situation within the state.

"Within a week," said one Indian analyst, "we should be able to see if there is a difference on the ground."