By Andrew Buncombe and Omar Waraich | The Independent
Pakistani authorities have ordered a fresh crackdown on a banned charity linked to militants blamed for the Mumbai attacks after dozens of its volunteers were discovered at the centre of Pakistan's emergency aid operation.
The move to act against a front group for Jamaat, the Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation (FeIF) came just a day after The Independent discovered dozens of volunteers working to provide first aid and emergency assistance to refugees who have fled clashes between Pakistani troops and Taliban militants in the Swat Valley and surrounding area. Doctors, struggling to deal with flood of desperate and exhausted people, say the volunteers have been providing a crucial service in a situation where the government appears utterly overstretched.
Yesterday the Pakistani government said it was aware of reports of the charity's re-emergence and was ready to take action. "The interior ministry has directed that no banned organisation will be allowed to resume activities under the garb of humanitarian work," said a senior government official.
Jamaat-ud-Dawa was first banned following the Mumbai attacks last December that left 160 people dead, although many observers were sceptical at the time of the authorities' willingness to act against a high-profile organisation that was both locally popular and which had traditionally enjoyed links to Pakistan's military establishment. Jamaat volunteers have been active in the aftermath of natural calamities across the region from Sri Lanka to Kashmir.
How long it will take the government to act this time around remains unclear. Last night FeIF volunteers were still manning a base in the centre of a traffic island in the city of Mardan from where they were coordinating relief efforts. If anything, the group's presence, and the number of black and white flags bearing Jamaat's curved scimitar logo, appear to have grown in recent days.
Ten miles to the north, at the Jallala refugee camp, medics confirmed the ongoing role being played by the charity's staff. Professor Isa Khan, who was heading a clinic at the camp that is home to around 8,000 refugees from Swat, Buner and Lower Dir, said some of the charity's dozen ambulances had been delivering people to the camp after treatment at local hospitals. "The government is not doing very much. We do not have enough resources. We don't have enough medicine," he said.
Legal documents displayed by FeIF volunteers suggested the organisation was registered in Lahore in July 2007. Experts on Jamaat and its banned parent organisation Lashkar-e-Taiba - blamed for the Mumbai attacks - have suggested the front group could have been set up in anticipation of a crackdown. Volunteers said the FeIF was the new name for Jamaat.
Reports have identified the group's leader as Hafiz Abdur Rauf, a former head of Jamaat's humanitarian wing. In different interviews, Mr Rauf has made conflicting comments about the relationship between the FeIF and Jamaat. A spokesman for Jamaat, Yahya Mujahid, told the Associated Press: "We know the Pakistan government banned us under a UN order, but we are helping out brothers and sisters in those areas."
It appears that Jammat operates across large parts of Pakistan. Volunteers said the group had 350 ambulances and maintained stockpiles of emergency supplies in Lahore. It takes collections from across Pakistani society , from doctors to shopkeepers. Its members demonstrated in Lahore on Kashmir Day, last February.
The reemergence of Jamaat comes as the Pakistani military steps-up it operation against militants who have seized control of areas just 60 miles from Islamabad. Yesterday Prime Minister Yousaf Gilani said the country could beat the Taliban but lose the public relations war if it failed to help hundreds of thousands of people forced from their homes. "Militarily we will win the war but it will be unfortunate if we loose it publicly," he told the parliament.