Widespread Outage Spurs Coup Rumors In Pakistan

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 25, 2006

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Sept. 24 -- Panicky rumors of a coup swept through Pakistan on Sunday after a power outage interrupted national television broadcasts and later plunged much of the country into darkness.

With the president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, away on an extended trip to the United States and Canada at a time of regional tensions and growing insurgency in neighboring Afghanistan, many Pakistanis speculated that he had been overthrown in absentia.

The chairman of the national power administration, Tariq Hamid, said at a 10 p.m. news conference in Lahore that the outage was caused by technical problems and that no sabotage had been involved.

Information Ministry officials, accompanying Musharraf on a visit to New York, also announced Sunday night that the president was "in good health."

Islamabad, the capital, was quiet late into the night, and there were no signs of military vehicles or troops in the streets. There were also no reports of unusual military movements in Rawalpindi, a city near Islamabad where the armed forces are headquartered.

But for hours, with power flickering on and off in Islamabad and half the country still without electricity by late evening, rumors continued to swirl of a possible coup against Musharraf, an army general who seized power from Pakistan's last elected leader in 1999.

"I have been flooded with calls all evening. Everyone wants to know if something is amiss. It shows you how on edge people are," said Mushahid Hussain, a senator from the ruling Pakistan Muslim League faction who is close to Musharraf.

Hussain said he had received dozens of queries by cellphone and text messaging from provincial authorities, human rights groups, Pakistanis living abroad, and even from officials traveling with the president. He said he told them everything was fine.

Rifaat Hussain, a Pakistani defense and security expert, said he, too, had received numerous calls from friends who were worried about a possible coup. He said he immediately contacted government sources, who "vociferously denied" there was any problem.

"So many people have cellphones now that rumors can snowball, and such a situation also taps into people's anxieties," he said. Many Pakistanis thought immediately of last week's coup in Thailand, Hussain said, and remembered how previous Pakistani leaders had been "unceremoniously removed."

Pakistan has had a history of military intervention in civilian politics ever since it was founded as a Muslim democracy in 1947. While elections have been held regularly, civilian rule has been repeatedly interrupted by the army or other non-elected figures.

Musharraf, 63, who is chief of Pakistan's army staff, would be highly unlikely to fall to a military coup, although it has been reported that some of the senior army commanders, who operate as a consensual policy group within the armed forces, are conservative Muslims who disagree with his moderate religious policies.

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