The government has confirmed reports that several senior army officers are under arrest, fuelling local press speculation over a renewed role in politics by the military. A terse statement by Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto on 15 October, after days of rumours, did not identify the officers or give any reason for the 26 September arrests.

Some Pakistani newspapers report that the detained officers were Islamic activists planning some sort of coup. The leader of the right wing Jamaat- i-Islami Party, Qazi Hussain Ahmad, says he fears that the arrests could be the start of a move to purge the armed forces of religious-minded officers. Bhutto, who was to meet US President Clinton in October, earlier this year appealed for international support in the fight against what she called terrorism and fanaticism.

However, other reports say the officers were caught trying to smuggle weapons to Kashmiri Muslim guerrillas fighting Indian rule in divided Kashmir. The officers are said to be linked with Tablighi Jamaat, an evangelical Muslim oganisation based in the town of Raiwand in Punjab province.

The most senior officer known to be involved is Major-General Zaheer- ul-Islam Abbasi, once expelled from India when he was military attache at the Pakistani embassy there. His last job was director-general of infantry at general headquarters.

Pakistan has been ruled by military dictators for half of its 48 years. Both Bhutto and her father have been victims of the military’s involvement in politics. However, the generals now running the army are given credit for moving the military away from politics.