Three shot dead in anti-American protests as national strike is called

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The Independent Online

A national strike was called and demonstrations were staged across Pakistan yesterday in fiery protest at President Pervez Musharraf's support for America against Afghanistan's Taliban regime. At least three people were shot dead when gunfire erupted in Karachi.

But protestors were largely confined to the loyal supporters of the religious parties; the spread of dissent to the majority of the population, much feared by the Pakistani government, has yet to happen.

In Peshawar, close to the Afghan border, 10,000 men marched to the main mosque to hear speeches hailing Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. One tribal leader, Sadar Abdul Rehman, told the crowd that the price of guns in his area will be dropped from eight thousand rupees (£85) to 500 rupees (£3). "I invite the Americans to come to our land so you can see for yourselves what will be done to you," he announced.

In Quetta, a crowd of several thousand gathered after Friday prayers in front of the city's central mosque, calling for solidarity with Afghanistan against America.

At the culmination of the protest, as has become the norm during the past week, a straw dummy in western shirt and trousers representing President Bush was hoisted above the crowd, then set on fire and smashed to pieces.

"No one believed Afghanistan's jihad (holy war) against Russia would succeed," roared one of the speakers to cheering followers. "Now America is trying the same thing but they will be defeated, just like the Russians."

"The incidents" – the attacks in New York and Washington – took place in the United States and no one from Afghanistan was involved," one speaker declared. "War against Afghanistan is war against Islam and war against Pakistan." Although there were photographs of Mr bin Laden on banners, references to him by the speakers in Quetta were conspicuously absent.

There was no other violence, however. The crowd broke up and went home, with the satisfied but not unduly excited look of football supporters after a predictable home win had been secured.

President Musharraf may yet fear the simmering tension among his people in the days ahead but, for the time being, they are mainly under control.

Moderate elements believe that support of the US is the only reasonable option.