ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistan’s prime minister vowed to stop any “foreign power” from violating the country’s borders as millions of people celebrated 60 years of independence on Tuesday with parties, fireworks — and much introspection.
“I want to make it clear that not under any circumstances will we allow any foreign power to enter Pakistan’s territory,” Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said at a traditional flag-hoisting ceremony in the capital Islamabad to mark Independence Day.
Aziz’s comments came amid signs of growing unease in Pakistan over questions in the United States whether President Pervez Musharraf’s government was doing enough to battle al Qaeda and pro-Taliban militants on its border with Afghanistan.
Some U.S. politicians recently said the United States must be willing to strike al Qaeda targets in Pakistan even without Islamabad’s permission — drawing rebuke in the country.
President George W. Bush also signed into law a bill requiring him to confirm Pakistan’s progress in fighting Taliban and al Qaeda before releasing future aid, disturbing many Pakistanis sensitive to what they see as excessive U.S. demands.
The controversy added to a difficult time for Musharraf, who faces major problems securing a second term with allies wavering, approval ratings slumping, a Supreme Court that might uphold constitutional challenges, and rising Islamist violence.
The extent of Musharraf’s problems were shown this month by reports the president had considered declaring a state of emergency.
In past years, streets in Islamabad would have been festooned with flags and illuminations. But because of the chronic security situation, it has become a low key affair in the capital.
Paramilitary troops were on standby to maintain order. Police checked vehicles in and around Islamabad, where two suicide bombings killed at least 26 people last month.
Pro-Taliban militants have stepped up attacks across Pakistan, mainly in the conservative northwest tribal region, after a bloody military assault last month on Islamabad’s Red Mosque to dislodge a pro-Taliban movement based there.
More than 200 people have been killed in attacks across the country while another 102 died during the siege and assault on the mosque.
In some parts of the country, there was a more celebratory atmosphere.
Several thousand people gathered for a midnight firework display in the garrison town of Rawalpindi, called Islamabad’s twin city. People waved national flags and danced to the tune of patriotic songs.
In the eastern city of Lahore, troops hoisted the national flag at the Wagah border with India, as up to 200 people present at the ceremony raised “Long-live Pakistan” slogans.
“We pray for peace and progress in Pakistan and an end to the wave of violence across the country,” said Arshad Mehmood, a college student.
Newspapers were packed with opinion pieces analyzing Pakistan’s 60 years. Many focused on what one commentator called an “orgy of pessimism” surrounding Pakistan’s troubled years of military rule and struggles with democracy.
“True, we have made blunder after blunder, committed terrible crimes against our own people,” Dawn newspaper said in one editorial.
“All said and done, there has been progress, though, admittedly, the rate could have been faster.”
On Monday night Musharraf, who came to power in a 1999 coup, dismissed threats of any U.S. action inside Pakistan, and said President Bush telephoned him and gave guarantees with regard to Pakistan’s sovereignty.
“I am fully confident and very sure that there will be no action from across the border,” he said during a question and answer program broadcast on television, in an apparent reference to U.S.-led foreign troops fighting Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.