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Last Updated: Friday, 3 March 2006, 10:25 GMT
Bush in Pakistan - seeing is believing

By Aamer Ahmed Khan
BBC News, Islamabad

President Bush's scheduled visit to Pakistan on Saturday is cloaked in an extraordinary security operation.

Searching a car near the presidential palace, Islamabad
Searching a car near the presidential palace, Islamabad
"We are determined to defeat them," Pakistan Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told a press briefing in Islamabad on Thursday.

He was answering a question about the possible motives behind the early morning bombing in Karachi that had killed a US diplomat and three others.

"No change has been made to President Bush's plans to visit Pakistan," he said.

The minister looked pleased at the resolve shown by the two allies.

But not many in Islamabad are likely to share his enthusiasm.

For the capital's residents, few of whom will even get a chance to see him in real life, the high profile visit means one thing - unprecedented security.

And that, they say, is something which has to be seen to be believed.

Rumour and speculation

They last saw it when President Clinton made a brief stopover in Pakistan at the tail end of a five-day tour of India.

And while security personnel - both Pakistani and American - are yet to descend on the capital in full force, there is enough going on to indicate a tough weekend ahead for the city.

"Islamabad will not be sealed off," says Sheikh Rashid. "People will be free to go about their daily affairs."

Preparing to hang an official banner in Islamabad
There is so much cloak and dagger stuff whenever we are visited by a high profile US official
Pakistani security official

The sniggers his assertion generated among the media were not without reason.

The airport is being purged of all public transport starting Friday.

There is talk of a possible freeze on flights from and to Islamabad on 4 March, the day Mr Bush is expected to spend in Islamabad.

The part of the city which houses important government buildings, as well as the diplomatic enclave, is likely to remain off limits for citizens.

All hotels in the city have been asked to cancel functions booked between 2 and 5 March, be it weddings or anything else.

Most local reporters have been denied admission to the US president's official engagements.

Not only that, no one even knows what exactly these engagements are.

The little that is known has come in the shape of a US State Department briefing in Washington, later repeated by Pakistan's ambassador Jehangir Karamat.

Behind the scenes

There is frenetic activity at the Chaklala military airbase, where a number of C-130s can be seen landing and taking off at regular intervals.

Islamabad road
A warm official welcome, but will Mr Bush even travel by road?
They are perhaps bringing in security equipment as well as the 700 to 800 US security personnel entrusted with Mr Bush's security in Pakistan.

The best kept secret is the exact timing of his arrival.

The few local reporters cleared for covering only the arrival and departure of Mr Bush have been asked to report at the army's inter-services public relations headquarters at 1400 (0900 GMT).

But few believe that this indeed will be the time he shows up.

"There is so much cloak and dagger stuff whenever we are visited by a high profile US official," says a security official in Islamabad.

He mentions the former CIA director George Tenet's visit in the wake of the September 11 attacks on the US.

"We were told that he would reach Islamabad at 5 pm (1200 GMT). He eventually arrived shortly before midnight," he says.

"We were never told about the reasons for the delay. He was to fly in from Kabul but every half hour we would get a phone call saying that it could be any time."

The venues where Mr Bush will carry out his official engagements are also not known.

Some say he will spend most of his time at the US embassy. Others say he will be at the presidency.

An armed US secret service agent guards President Bush in Kabul, Afghanistan
Up to 800 US security personnel are expected in Islamabad

The information minister is even reluctant to name the officials who will be accompanying President Musharraf for his formal meeting with his American counterpart.

The speculation is endless.

One official says three routes have been chosen for Mr Bush to travel from the airport to the presidency. The final route will only be decided at the last minute.

Others scoff at the suggestion. The routes are only for his official cavalcade, they say. The President will surely be flown straight to the presidency.

And just when one is confused beyond redemption, there is always that odd security 'source' with a wry smile.

"Security rests in doing the unexpected. Who knows, he may end up spending some really relaxed moments here."


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