City sealed after threat to air base

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The Independent Online

Authorities in Pakistan arrested hundreds of militant Muslims and sealed an entire city today after leaders of an influential Islamic political party vowed to attack an air base where US personnel were said to be working.

A spokesman for Pakistan's powerful Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party said thousands of followers were massing and would move toward Jacobabad Air Base.

"Body bags will be sent to America," said Riaz Durrani, a Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam spokesman. "Then they will realise the misery."

Interior ministry officials said 292 members of that party and other militant organisations were arrested to "prevent them from attacking and carrying out suicide operations" at the air base.

Pakistani officials confirmed on Thursday that the country had allowed US military aircraft to land inside its borders and has granted the United States use of at least two air bases during air strikes inside Afghanistan. One base, they said, was Jacobabad's.

The officials emphasised that the Americans were not ground forces and did not characterise them as US military personnel. Government spokesman Anwar Mehmood has said Pakistan will not allow its territory to be used for any attacks on Afghanistan.

The issue is extremely controversial in the Muslim country of 145 million people.

Islamic religious parties sympathetic to the Taliban are outraged that Pakistan has decided to help the United States in its attempts to destroy terrorist installations in Afghanistan that belong to Osama bin Laden, top suspect in the September 11 attacks on the United States.

Intelligence sources said all major roads leading to Jacobabad had been closed, and anyone trying to reach the city is being checked thoroughly. The city is sealed to outsiders, the sources said.

Dozens of militants blocked a road to Jacobabad on Sunday morning, burning tires, a city police dispatcher said. Authorities quickly restored the normal flow of traffic, the dispatcher said.

Abdul Ghafoor Hydri, a Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam leader, said yesterday that the party had called for followers to attack the air base and even stage suicide attacks to destroy American aircraft.

The party's Jacobabad leader, Mohammed Khan Bijarani, said today 10,000 activists were ready to help.

Troops from Panu Akoil, a nearby major military base, were on the scene at the air base to ensure security, interior ministry sources said.