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Pakistan launches hunt for plotters against Bhutto

Pakistani investigators are trying to determine the extent of a plot within the armed forces to overthrow the Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, and replace her with a revolutionary Islamic regime.

A major-general, a brigadier and at least 38 other army officers are in custody "on charges of indiscipline", officialese for being suspected of wanting to topple Ms Bhutto. The putsch was thwarted last month but only now are details surfacing in the Pakistani press of how the plotters intended to arrest or kill the top generals and then kill leading politicians.

Ms Bhutto has evidently been assured the threat has passed, since she left on Monday for a Non-Aligned Movement summit in Colombia. Passing through London on her way to the summit, she declined to comment on the coup reports, saying the army was dealing with the matter. Officers, in fact, are still trying to determine how widespread support might be within the armed forces for this small but influential band of Islamic extremists.

Ms Bhutto is no stranger to military coups: her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was overthrown in 1977 and later executed by the generals. Twenty months into her first term, Ms Bhutto was jostled out by the generals. In Pakistan's turbulent democracy, military putsches have succeeded only when backed by the top generals; this last one was not.

The News daily said the strategist behind the plot was Brigadier Mustansir Billah, from the Baluch Regiment, who allegedly set up links with two armed Islamic militant groups, Harakat-ul-Ansar and Hezbi Mujaheddin, which are fighting in Kashmir, Bosnia and Chechnya, and have many Pakistani recruits. Ms Bhutto was targeted for being too pro-Western.

The joint chiefs of the army, navy and air force were to meet at general headquarters in Rawalpindi on 30 September. The mutinous officers planned to seize them and declare an Islamic government. Senator Tariq Choudhry, who first leaked news of the officers' arrest, said: "If the politicians did not behave, there would also be a killing of politicians."

The military were tipped off when they arrested a Harakat-ul-Ansar militant in Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistani Kashmir. His capture, according to some sources, came about because Ms Bhutto is anxious to prove to Washington and London that Islamabad is not involved in the kidnapping of four Westerners, including two Britons, by Al-Faran, a suspected breakaway group from Harakat- ul-Ansar. No news was extracted from the activist about the hostages' whereabouts but instead the coup plot came to light. The militant allegedly disclosed,according to the News, that Brig Billah had gone to tribal territories near the Afghan frontier to buy arms for the insurrection. He and a colonel were reportedly arrested trying to smuggle the guns into military headquarters. The press said the plotters were so sure of success that they had already designated exalted titles for themselves as revolutionary Islamic leaders.

Some Western diplomats suggested the coup inquiry into the abortive coup might lead to a further purge of fundamentalist officers who still cling to the pan-Islamic vision of Zia ul-Haq, the military president killed in 1988.

Ms Bhutto 's popularity has fallen sharply in recent months. She has failed to end ethnic violence in Karachi and cannot shake off the reek of corruption that clings to her administration. But Pakistanis, having lived with military rule for 25 of the country's 48 years of existence, have few illusions about the military. Nor could an Islamic regime count on much support from outside; no Western government, and few Muslim ones, would back mutineers who toppled a moderate democracy.

Meanwhile, in Karachi, Ms Bhutto's brother-in-law, Nassir Hussain, has been arrested in connection with the death of a a local politician, Ahmed Ali Soomro. Although married to Ms Bhutto's younger sister, he was considered an adversary, since he sided against the Prime Minister in a family feud.