Osama bin Laden sought to stoke the flames of Islamic militancy against Pakistan's President, General Pervez Musharraf, yesterday by accusing him of supporting a Christian "crusade" against Islam.
"The world has been divided into two camps: one under the banner of the cross, as the head of infidels, Bush, has said, and one under the banner of Islam," said a statement purportedly signed by Mr bin Laden, which took the form of a letter delivered to the Qatar satellite television channel Al-Jazeera. "The Pakistani government has stood under the banner of the cross."
The letter will add to tensions in Pakistan where pro-Taliban Muslims have taken part in vociferous, and occasionally violent, demonstrations against General Musharraf's support for the bombing of Afghanistan.
For the seventh consecutive day yesterday, the Karakoram Highway in northern Pakistan was blocked by pro-Taliban tribesmen, and further demonstrations are expected today on the Muslim day of prayer.
"Muslims in Afghanistan are being subjected to killing and the Pakistani government is standing beneath the Christian banner," said the letter.
"Followers of Islam, this is your day to make Islam victorious. The heat of the crusade against Islam has intensified, its ardour has increased and the killing has multiplied against the followers of Mohammed in Afghanistan. Bring victory to truth and its people, and defeat falsehood and its people, with God's permission. Your stance against evil gives us heart."
If genuine, the letter represents a shrewd attempt by Mr bin Laden to attack the anti-terrorism coalition at one of its weakest points. Ever since the bombing began, General Musharraf has been struggling to balance the demands of the US and its Western allies with the sentiments of his own Islamic population.
Extremist groups have been particularly incensed by his decision to make a number of air bases available to the Americans. Officially, the US forces operating from them are engaged only in logistical support and search-and-rescue missions, but many Pakistanis suspect that they are more directly involved in the attacks on Afghanistan.
Polls show that most Pakistanis oppose the bombing, but only a small minority have been motivated to take part in the demonstrations so far, which have been generally noisy, but non-violent. The most devastating consequence of Pakistan's position came last Sunday, when gunmen burst into a Christian church service in Bahawalpur and massacred 17 people. They remain unidentified but are suspected of being Islamic extremists.
Tony Blair hastened to renew his support for General Musharraf yesterday, after hearing of the statement from Mr bin Laden. "We should be very clear, I believe, in our support for President Musharraf at this difficult time, who is trying to do his best for the people of Pakistan, and stand solidly with the people of Pakistan and try to help them at this moment," Mr Blair said at a press conference with the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, in Gaza City.
"I hope that people realise that the desire of bin Laden is to create Taliban-type states all over the Arab and Muslim world."Reuse content