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ISLAMABAD, Aug 19: Millions of people in the country, who were busy exchanging greetings through SMS, received a rude shock on the eve of Eidul Fitr when mobile phone service in some of the main cities was suspended on the direct orders of the federal government.

Mobile phones in Karachi, Lahore, Multan, Quetta and a number of other cities started to go silent from 8pm onwards, which was the peak period for most people to exchange Eid greetings.

In many areas of violence-prone Karachi panic gripped the denizens, particularly those whose families were out for last-minute shopping on ‘chand raat’. However, late in the evening the message started to spread around through television that the problem was not due to any malfunctioning or sabotage, but a result of the government’s counter-terrorism measure.

The suspension will continue during Eid prayer hours on Monday.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the action had been taken in view of security concerns of the governments of Punjab and Sindh.

Talking to newsmen, the minister said cellphone service would be suspended all over Punjab at the request of the provincial government.

“The Punjab government has requested us to suspend cellphone service in some parts of the province, but we think it should also made temporarily inoperative in sensitive areas of Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh because terrorists usually use mobile phones in their acts of terrorism,” he said.

The decision was taken at a meeting held at the minister’s residence to discuss security concerns of Punjab and Sindh.

“The mobile phone service will be suspended in targeted areas and we believe that people’s lives are more precious than cellphone facility,” he said.

The minister said the government would take all necessary steps to protect people’s lives.

When contacted, a senior official of the ministry said: “The service will be suspended in specific areas and not throughout the country and its duration will not be more than 2 hours,” he said.

He said Karachi, Lahore and Multan had been declared ‘most sensitive’ cities on the occasion of Eid.

It is for the first time that such a step has been taken on the occasion of Eid.

Meanwhile, the Punjab government categorically denied having requested the federal government to block mobile phone service in any part of the province.

PML-N leader Pervez Rashid, who is Punjab government’s spokesman, said the provincial government had not made any such request.

He said if the interior minister knew where and at what time terrorists would strike then they could be arrested before hitting their targets.

“The minister and his team should arrest terrorists instead of suspending phone service which will create problems for people,” he said.

Mr Rashid said the federal government usually took such steps which affected people, instead of resolving the real issues.

“The government has failed to overcome the energy crisis but urged people to save electricity and it resorted to long spells of loadshedding.

Similarly, when the sugar crisis erupted it advised people to reduce the use of sweetener,” the PML-N leader said.

He said the decision to block cellphone service would not only create inconvenience for people but also spread fear that a terrorism incident could take place in their area.