A group of Pakistani army officers was arrested last week for plotting to overthrow Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and turn Pakistan into a fundamentalist Islamic state, according to sources familiar with an investigation by military intelligence.
Bhutto told journalists Saturday that "some army officers have been arrested." She did not give any details. "At an appropriate time we will make everything public," she said.
A major general, a brigadier and five colonels have been arrested while a recently retired lieutenant general and more than a dozen army officers are being questioned for their alleged roles in the plot, the sources said.
A senior Pakistani official said a group in the army "with fanatic Islamic views" was pressing the army chief to provide full-scale military support to separatists in Indian Kashmir.
Senior officials said the plot was to remove the army chief of staff, Gen. Abdul Waheed, through an internal coup and then to overthrow Bhutto's administration. They said it had been planned in meetings arranged under religious cover by a few senior army officers at their General Headquarters in the city of Rawalpindi.
"They thought that the army chief and Prime Minister Bhutto had compromised the Kashmir cause, and it was in the supreme interest of Islam to remove them from the scene," said an investigator.
Military investigators reportedly became aware of the plot early this month in the city of Muzaffarabad, on the Pakistani side of Kashmir, when a member of the Islamic fighting group Harkatul Ansar was arrested on reports that he was negotiating a shipment of weapons. "His links with senior officers in the GHQ surfaced in an early stage of the investigation," said a source.
The military investigators made a breakthrough last week, said the source, when they arrested Brig. Gen. Mustansir Billah and a colonel in army aviation while they were escorting to Rawalpindi a truckload of arms and ammunition from a thriving weapons market in the tribal region.
It was not the first time that a religiously motivated group in the Pakistani army sought to influence events. In May 1993, a few months after taking over as army chief, Waheed had dismissed Lt. Gen. Javed Nasir, the chief of the military's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, for providing covert military support to Muslim rebels in about a dozen countries.
Nasir now travels worldwide preaching militant Islam. More than two dozen Inter-Services Intelligence officials who had worked with him have been removed from the agency.
Officials investigating the current case reportedly found evidence that the group of religiously motivated officers arrested last week had strong personal connections with the former intelligence chief.