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Musharraf praises Sharon for Gaza withdrawal

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan -- President General Pervez Musharraf issued a twin challenge to Islamic militants in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press yesterday, praising Israel's leader as ''courageous" for withdrawing from Gaza and claiming to have crushed Al Qaeda's ability to operate in Pakistan's cities and mountains.

Assassins backed by Al Qaeda have repeatedly targeted Musharraf, who spoke ahead of the fourth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and a visit to the United States. The Pakistani president's openness to the Jewish state and grand plans to tackle the root causes of terrorism are expected to further outrage Muslim hard-liners at home.

The 62-year-old military leader, who last week initiated Pakistan's first high-level contacts with Israel, said the withdrawal of Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip demonstrated Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's ability to carry out tough decisions.

''I think such actions need courage and boldness," Musharraf said. ''What we have seen on the TV, Israelis not wanting to leave, being forced out, is a courageous thing to do. We hope that he shows [an] equal amount of courage finally in the creation of the Palestinian state."

Musharraf said he had no new clues about the location of Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri. He said the top Al Qaeda leaders are probably hiding on either side of Pakistan's rugged border with Afghanistan but are isolated and unable to order terror attacks.

He said, however, that the terror network and its leaders remain symbolic motivators, with insurgents revering them and carrying around their photographs.

''I personally think, yes, there is an underworld of these organizations linked to each other," Musharraf said. ''Most dangerous is the financial underground. These linkages should be cut."

He also confirmed for the first time that a suspect in the July terror bombings in London briefly visited a school in Pakistan linked with Muslim militants. But Musharraf dismissed suggestions that the trip to an Islamic school in Lahore impacted the beliefs or motivations of Shahzad Tanweer. He said Tanweer stayed there too briefly to be influenced, and his ''indoctrination" was probably the result of his lack of assimilation into British society. Tanweer, 22, fellow Pakistan native Mohammed Sidique Khan, and two accomplices set off bombs in the London transport system July 7, killing 52 people and themselves. Both Tanweer and Khan visited Pakistan last year.

Yesterday, a nationwide strike called by the political opposition, partly over Musharraf's Israel policy, led to shutdowns of shops in several cities.

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