RAWALPINDI, Pakistan,(Reuters) – Foreign students attending Islamic religious schools in Pakistan will be ordered to leave as part of a drive to stamp out terrorism and religious extremism, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf said on Friday.
Security forces have detained more than 600 people in the past week after Musharraf ordered a crackdown on militant groups, mosques and religious schools, or madrasas.
Speaking to foreign correspondents at his residence as Chief of Army Staff in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, Musharraf said he wanted foreign students out.
"We”ve decided," he said. "All those who are here — there are about 1,400 — they must leave. We will not issue visas to such people."
The crackdown was ordered after the July 7 bomb attacks on London, which police said were carried out by three Britons of Pakistani descent and a fourth Briton of Jamaican origin.
One of the men, Shehzad Tanweer, visited a madrasa during trips to Pakistan in the past two years.
The number of foreign students attending madrasas in Pakistan has already fallen sharply since the government imposed tougher visa restrictions after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
There are around 12,000 madrasas in Pakistan, often providing education, shelter and food to boys from poor families.
Musharraf said Pakistan”s security forces were cooperating closely with their British counterparts.
But while several people had been detained based on leads from telephone records, no one suspected of involvement in the London bombings was being held in Pakistan.
"We are in the process of going through each one of those (telephone) numbers. Anyone who had contact with those chaps we are weeding out," he said.
Diplomats say Musharraf”s main motivation for ordering the detentions is to eradicate religious extremism at home, where suicide attacks inside mosques have killed scores of Muslims.
The main targets for police have been militant Sunni Muslim groups waging a campaign against minority Shi”ite Muslims.
Asked how long the crackdown on militants would last, Musharraf said it was an ongoing process.
"The action against the banned organisations will continue. It is a continuous process and we will be very strongly dealing with them in the terrorist courts.
"We have decided we are going to act against their leadership."
Musharraf, who took power in a bloodless military coup six years ago, said he was in a far stronger position to confront forces of religious extremism than he had been after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
At that time, the economy was weak, Pakistan was close to a fourth war with India, and stronger action could have led to internal disturbances. "I could have rocked the boat so much it could have capsized," he said.
Musharraf survived two al Qaeda inspired assassination attempts in December 2003 and is widely expected to retain the presidency after elections in 2007.