RAWALPINDI, March 27: President General Pervez Musharraf on Tuesday pointedly accused the Islamic extremists or jihadi groups of recruiting or luring innocent people to fight for their misplaced cause in places like Afghanistan, Kashmir and beyond, and rejected the allegation that the people who had disappeared in the last couple of years were in the custody of the intelligence agencies.

“It’s not only incorrect, the allegation has absolutely no basis,” General Musharraf said in categorical terms while addressing a gathering of several thousands people at the historical Liaquat Bagh. Conscious of the allegation taking rounds for the past many months about several of the ‘missing people’ being in the custody of the intelligence agencies, the president said it was a sheer propaganda.

The public meeting -- the first such gathering in Rawalpindi since President Musharraf addressed a large crowd during his referendum campaign many years ago -- was linked to inauguration of a major expressway in the city. But as was expected, the rally was arranged not just to highlight some of the major development schemes of the government, as President Musharraf used the occasion to also explain his government’s position on a number of critical issues like the case of ‘missing persons’ to the judicial crisis.

It was during his address in a maximum security environment that an unidentified woman tried to approach the president, and with direct intervention by him from the dais, the security officials escorted her to the podium where she handed over a note to General Musharraf.

Resuming his speech, the president disclosed that the note was also about one of the missing persons. He then used the occasion to speak in detail about the issue. Insisting that none of the missing persons was in the custody of any of the security agencies, he said the issue had become complicated as no one seemed to know the whereabouts of these people.

The president's remarks came in wake of the Supreme Court's observation on Monday that intelligence agencies were answerable to the court regarding the disappearance of people.

Elaborating his government’s position in the wake of growing criticism of the issue, the president said he had every reason to believe that most of these people had been lured into joining extremist groups to fight what they believe is jihad. "Once I received a letter from a person whose son was missing, I personally contacted various government organisations for tracing the boy but failed to find him anywhere. Later I was informed that the missing boy was attached with a militant organisation," the president said.

"I have seen movies and was shocked to know that young boys were being trained by jihadi organisations for suicides and other anti-state activities and I am deadly sure that the missing persons are in the control of militant organisations," he maintained.

It was quite obvious from his speech that President Musharraf was just referring to the cases of those missing people, who one way or the other, have religious affiliation. However, human rights groups have constantly been saying that the issue of disappearances is not just about the religious hardliners, as a large number of Baloch and Sindhi nationalists, who were opposed to the government, have also been missing for a long time and were believed to be in the custody of one of the security agencies.

In his speech, General Musharraf’s focus was on the challenge the government and country were faced with in the wake of the growing trend of religious extremism. He described the use of religion to incite people to extremism and violence as one of the biggest curse. He was convinced that unless the whole nation joined hands to fight this menace, the effect of government’s development plans and policies would be meaningless.

The public gathering was also attended by Punjab Chief Minister Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, Defence Minister Rao Sikandar Iqbal, Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid and a battery of provincial ministers.

President Musharraf told the gathering that the opposition was politicising the ongoing judicial issue and warned that the politics of agitation and protests in this regard would not be tolerated.

"The judicial issue would be solved by the Supreme Judicial Council and not by the politics of strikes started by political parties," he added.

"The anti-government strikes by the opposition have badly failed as the people no more believe in the politics of agitation and strikes," he said.

General Musharraf said that 2007 was the year of election and urged people to vote for the ruling PML. He said the assemblies would complete its tenure for the first time, adding that real democracy in the country had been restored.

The president reiterated that the construction of Kalabagh Dam was inevitable for meeting the country's energy and water demands.

Earlier, the president inaugurated the ground-breaking ceremony of Leh Expressway for Rawalpindi that would cost Rs16 billion and would be a 22km signal-free route on both sides of Leh Nullah -- the city’s main rain-water stream which has virtually turned into a sewage drain.



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