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Pak radical softens anti-US stand

Islamabad, Oct. 23 (Reuters): One of Pakistan’s main Islamist political leaders said today he was willing to give the United States time to withdraw its bases from the country, marking a softening of his stance on the issue.

Fazal-ur-Rehman is the prime ministerial candidate for the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) religious alliance, which exploited anger over Pakistan’s cooperation in the US-led war on terror to emerge as a political force after this month’s general election.

The MMA campaigned for the immediate withdrawal of US bases from Pakistan and the imposition of Islamic law in the country. But it appears to be softening its stance slightly as it vies for a place in a future coalition government.

“Measures should be taken to assure the Pakistani people that they are vacating the bases,” Rehman told Reuters in his first interview since the election. “After these measures are taken, a time frame can be decided for the vacation of the bases.”

There is a small US military presence in Pakistan concentrated at the Jacobabad air base, from where search and rescue operations in neighbouring Afghanistan are launched. FBI agents are also helping track down al Qaida suspects who may have taken refuge in the country.

“We want to assure the US, the West and international community that we don’t need foreign assistance in maintaining peace in Pakistan, and its soil will not be allowed to be used against anyone,” Rehman said.

Rehman, a stout Islamic cleric with a bushy grey beard who was imprisoned last year for leading protests against US military action in Afghanistan, leads the hardline Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam, the strongest party in the MMA.

Rehman welcomed an announcement by US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld that some of the Taliban and al Qaida suspects being held at a naval base in Cuba would be released after months of interrogation failed to yield grounds for prosecution.

The prisoners were taken to Cuba after the fall of the Taliban late last year. US and Afghan opposition forces ousted the Taliban in the wake of the September 11 attacks on the United States, blamed on Taliban ally Osama bin Laden and his al Qaida network.

Some of the prisoners to be released are Pakistani citizens, according to a senior US defence official. “These US measures are bringing it from extremism to moderation,” Rehman said.

“Like... a softening of their position on Iraq, it is a step towards creating a good environment. These should be encouraged and more steps should be taken to bring peace in the world.”

But Rehman condemned the detention of a prominent orthopaedic surgeon this week in the eastern city of Lahore by Pakistani intelligence agents working with their FBI counterparts. “These are the measures that create suspicions that our sovereignty is permanently in danger,” he said. “He was a doctor and served humanity, and such measures are against humanity.”

The brothers of Dr Amir Aziz said FBI agents had accused him of supplying anthrax to Taliban and al Qaida militants, but Rehman said the FBI’s reported involvement was exactly the sort of foreign interference that had brought voters out for the MMA.

“Our people have given their opinion against such measures and it shows the US is not respecting the verdict of the people of Pakistan,” he said.

Rawalpindi blast

Five people were wounded in a bomb blast today in a market in Rawalpindi, close to Islamabad, a senior police official said.

It was the second blast near Islamabad this week.

A child was killed and 21 people wounded on Sunday when an explosion ripped through a market near the country's main aeronautical complex about 75 km northwest of the capital.

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