Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 22 October 2020

Islamabad seized by bomb fears

As UN and UK order diplomats to evacuate children, residents' movements are restricted by tight security following Marriott blast

ISLAMABAD // If Islamabad is not yet Baghdad or Kabul, orders by the United Nations and Britain to evacuate the children of international staff from the Pakistani capital have brought the transformation a step closer.

Concrete barriers and roadblocks manned by armed police and paramilitary soldiers have sprung up across the previously sedate city since the bombing of the Marriott Hotel last month. The government has declared that a huge area housing the presidency, parliament and most foreign embassies is now a high security "Red Zone" reminiscent of Baghdad's famed "Green Zone". Anyone entering is subjected to repeated checks on their car, questioning by police and endless requests to show official cards, passports and other documents. All surrounding roads have been shut down.

But the measures have failed to persuade UN headquarters in New York and the British foreign office in London that Islamabad is safe from further attacks by al Qa'eda and Taliban militants. "It used to be calm, leafy and relaxed here but now I would say it is too dangerous for families to be here," said Miriam O'Shea, 29, a British mother of one whose husband works with a non-governmental organisation.

"The problem is that you have a level of threat that is similar to Kabul but without the security set-up that you have there." The Marriott bombing intensified fears about the so-called "Talibanisation" of Pakistan, with extremism spreading from the lawless tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, through northwestern Pakistan and now into Islamabad. In a further sign of the instability, around 20 suspected Islamist militants including some Arabs were killed when suspected US missiles hit buildings in two villages in the North Waziristan tribal region on Friday night, intelligence officials said.

Islamabad itself has been hit by at least six bombings since the start of 2007, one of them hitting the Danish Embassy and another targeting an Italian restaurant that was one of the only places to sell wine to foreigners. Nerves were also rattled by the deadly storming of the Red Mosque in July last year. But the Marriott bombing was the final straw for the international community, as its six luxury restaurants were the prime meeting place for expatriates as well as members of the Pakistani elite. The blast killed the Czech ambassador, two US military personnel, a Vietnamese woman and a Danish intelligence agent.

British Airways announced two days after the blast that it was suspending all flights to Islamabad and closing its office, located in the plush Serena Hotel. The British foreign office then announced on Wednesday that about 60 children of British employees, all under eight years old, would be pulled out of the Pakistani capital. Maria, a German woman who did not want to give her full name, said her child attends the Islamabad British School but was now left with nowhere to go because the school was shutting down.

"We really don't know what to do next," she said. "The situation is becoming very difficult in Islamabad." Yet it was the UN decision that has proved the watershed for most expatriates. It announced on Thursday that it had moved to "security phase three" in Islamabad, meaning that children of foreign staff and possibly their spouses have to leave. Diplomatic sources in Islamabad said the decision was delayed by a week so as not to coincide with the UN General Assembly, where Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistan president, was making his maiden address.

"A number of recent security incidents including the bombing of the Marriott have drawn attention to the security situation in Pakistan and the potential risks to the international and national communities," said Fikret Akcura, the UN co-ordinator in Pakistan. He said the situation would be monitored and was not permanent. But Mrs O'Shea said she and her family now hoped to move. "We are definitely looking at getting out - as soon as we have got a country and a job to go to."

For most Pakistanis, already beset by a collapsing economy, a plummeting rupee and hours of power cuts a day, evacuation is not an option. Islamabad's inhabitants increasingly find that an important part of the city is effectively out of bounds to them unless they have a security pass allowing them into the huge Red Zone complex. In the rest of the capital, traffic queues are common at roadblocks and many Pakistanis are becoming scared to send their children to school for fear of further attacks.

This year's Eid celebrations were unusually subdued in Islamabad as the crowds of revellers who usually flock to parks and the city zoo chose to stay at home instead. "Things have never been this bad. I have changed my route to work to avoid official buildings but I get nervous when I am stuck at the checkpoints," said Abdul Haseeb Awan, a telecommunications engineer. The government vows it will beat the militants, with state media quoting Rehman Malik, the interior ministry chief, as saying this week it will "continue war against terrorism till elimination of terrorists or they left the country".

Islamabad residents, however, are pessimistic. "We feel really frightened now but we do not think the government can change things," Mr Awan said. nraven@thenational.ae

Updated: October 4, 2008 04:00 AM

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