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Pakistan Army Surrounds Airport

October 12, 1999

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) _ Pakistan’s army shut down Islamabad International Airport and surrounded the state-run radio and television stations today, witnesses said, following the surprise dismissal of the powerful army chief of staff.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif fired army chief Gen. Pervaiz Musharraf while the military leader was on a visit to Sri Lanka. Soon afterward, army personnel moved rapidly though the capital, seizing important buildings and putting state-run television off the air.

Instability in Pakistan would heighten tensions in South Asia, home of the world’s two newest nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, which clashed earlier this year in a dispute over the divided Himalayan region of Kashmir.

In Islamabad, the army reportedly took over the television station while Sharif was inside. Witnesses said they saw soldiers leap over the fence and go inside the building. All entry to the television building was then barred.

Soldiers also have taken over the houses of government officials, according to witnesses who saw soldiers lock the gate of the Information Minister Mushahid Hussein’s house.

Troops also surrounded and forced the closure of Islamabad International Airport, according to witnesses at the airport.

In Lahore, Sharif’s hometown, soldiers in jeeps and trucks have taken up positions on the main road and at government buildings. There also were reports that army trucks were moving toward the airport in Lahore, the Punjab provincial capital.

There have been no announcements by either Sharif or the army since Musharraf’s dismissal was announced.

The dismissal, which state-run television had described as an early retirement, took the military by surprise.

``We don’t know anything . . . go to the Defense Ministry or to the prime minister’s house. We also have heard like you on television,″ Col. Salaut Raza of the military’s information wing said when contacted by The Associated Press.

There was no immediate reason for the army chief’s dismissal, but in recent weeks there have been reports of a yawning rift between the army and the civilian government.

Musharraf’s term as army chief was to end in April 2000.

He was replaced by Gen. Zia Uddin, head of the country’s secret service and considered a close ally of Sharif’s. Before it went off the air, Pakistan Television showed Sharif and Uddin clasping hands as his promotion to army chief was announced.

Sharif also dismissed the Chief of General Staff Mohammed Aziz, according to defense sources.

The rift between Sharif and Musharraf developed after the prime minister ordered militants to withdraw this summer from Indian territory in the Kargil region of Kashmir, ending a bitter two-month border dispute with India.

Many feared the border dispute would escalate into an all-out war between the two nuclear enemies.

The withdrawal was negotiated between Sharif and President Clinton, but it reportedly did not have the support of the army chief, who many western analysts say orchestrated the takeover of Indian territory in Kargil.

The powerful army has ruled in Pakistan for 25 of its 52-year history, and army takeovers have occurred repeatedly.

Update hourly