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Pakistan slams al-Qaida tape on overthrow

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Pakistanis rally in the streets of Rawalpindi to protest the government's military operation against terror suspects near the border.

Pakistanis rally in the streets of Rawalpindi to protest the government’s military operation against terror suspects near the border.

David Guttenfelder, Associated Press

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan condemned an apparent call by al-Qaida's No. 2 leader for the overthrow of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, saying on Friday that it is an affront to Islam and will find no support in this deeply religious nation.

The government vowed to press on with a military operation against terror suspects in the tribal South Waziristan region bordering Afghanistan, while Islamic religious parties mounted mild street protests demanding an end to the crackdown.

The audiotape attributed to al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri aired Thursday on the Arabic satellite channel Al-Jazeera. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Friday that U.S. intelligence confirmed it was likely al-Zawahri's voice.

Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said the tape's call for Musharraf's overthrow was ludicrous and charged that al-Zawahri was trying to damage Islam.

"Pakistan does not take orders from anybody," Ahmed told reporters. "This man says he is a Muslim, but his acts are against Islam and Pakistan."

In the audiotape, the speaker called Musharraf a "traitor" and said Pakistani soldiers should disobey him. There was no way of knowing when the message was recorded.

"Every Muslim in Pakistan should work hard to get rid of this client government, which will continue to submit to America until it destroys Pakistan," he said.

The tape was not the first call from al-Zawahri for the overthrow of Musharraf, a key ally in the U.S.-led war on terror. In an audiotape released in September 2003, Osama bin Laden's right-hand man also called Musharraf a traitor for helping U.S. military forces conquer the Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan.

Musharraf, who seized power in Pakistan in a 1999 coup, has blamed al-Qaida for two assassination attempts against him in December. On March 15, he vowed to evict hundreds of foreign terrorists from Pakistani territory.

The tape was released as Pakistan pressed on with its biggest counterterrorism operation since Musharraf threw his support behind the U.S.-led war on terror in late 2001 and as the president was coming under increasing criticism from religious hard-liners.

Supporters of the ultraconservative Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal religious alliance gathered peacefully in Peshawar, Karachi, Lahore, Multan and Quetta to protest the operation. The largest rally, in Rawalpindi, near the national capital Islamabad, drew about 1,500 people.

"We condemn this operation because it is aimed at appeasing the Americans," said Sirajul Haq, a senior minister in North West Frontier Province, where the tribal areas are located. He spoke at the Peshawar rally.

The crackdown has also provoked several attacks against the army outside the battle zone.

Tribesmen on Friday turned over the bodies of eight soldiers missing since a March 22 rocket attack on their convoy in Jandola, 30 miles east of Wana, the main town in South Waziristan.

Last week, Musharraf said a "high-value" terrorist suspect could be hiding in South Waziristan. The government did not identify the suspect, but a number of senior officials privately said they believed it could be al-Zawahri.

Hundreds of suspects are still believed holed up in mud-brick fortresses, though fighting has subsided dramatically in recent days.

"Dozens of Pakistani soldiers were killed during the military operation," Ahmed said. "So it will continue until the terrorists who have scattered in our tribal areas are either apprehended or eliminated."

On Friday, troops demolished as many as 50 homes of tribesmen accused of providing protection to al-Qaida fighters, officials said on condition of anonymity.

At least 50 militants are believed to have been killed so far, along with at least 30 Pakistani army and paramilitary troops, and a dozen more held captive. More than 160 people have been arrested, many of them tribesmen.

AP reporters Munir Ahmad in Islamabad and Riaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.