ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- With sharpshooters positioned nearby and a surveillance helicopter hovering overhead, Pakistan's president lashed out Wednesday at Islamic militants responsible for recent terror attacks and warned of a long struggle to rid the nation of extremist violence.
"An insignificant minority has held the entire nation hostage," President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said in a speech marking the 55th anniversary of Pakistan's independence from Britain. "The recent attacks, especially directed at the worship places of our Christian brothers, are the most shameful and despicable examples of terrorism."
Musharraf was referring to last week's attacks against a school for Christian missionary children in Murree and a Presbyterian hospital in Taxila. Eleven Pakistanis, including one assailant, were killed in the two attacks.
In addition, suspected Islamic extremists believed to have ties to al-Qaida have detonated two car bombs in Karachi, killing 26 people, and kidnapped and murdered American journalist Daniel Pearl this year.
Long battle ahead
Security officials believe the attacks are aimed at punishing Pakistan and its American backers for Musharraf's support for the U.S.-led war. The attacks have prompted the United States and other major countries to urge their nationals to leave the South Asian nation.
The Americans and others have evacuated nonessential diplomatic staff and their families and closed or curtailed public access to visa offices, libraries and other foreign diplomatic facilities.
During his nationally televised speech, Musharraf warned the battle against terrorism could be a long one.
"We all have to put in a joint effort to root out those who are maligning our religion and tarnishing the image of Pakistan while imagining themselves to be ultra-Islamic," he said. "There are no quick-fix solutions to sectarianism and extremism. We have to act in a systematic manner to meet this menace."
The intense security provided to Musharraf during the independence day ceremonies underscored the seriousness with which authorities here view the terrorist threat.
Army troops sealed off roads leading to the convention center where Musharraf spoke. Troops could be seen taking position in the woods nearby. Military and police vehicles flooded the streets, and a helicopter hovered overhead.
In the past two years, Independence Day festivities have taken place outdoors and featured a flag-raising ceremony in front of the parliament building. This year, they were moved indoors.
Suspects rounded up
On the eve of the celebrations, government officials said police had rounded up about 20 suspected members of outlawed Islamic groups in a series of raids in Punjab province, which surrounds Islamabad.
The last major terrorist attack in the capital took place March 17, when a lone assailant hurled grenades into a Protestant church, killing himself and four others, including an American woman and her 17-year-old daughter.
However, last week's attacks occurred within 40 miles of Islamabad, raising fears about security in the Pakistani capital itself. Three Islamic militants and a member of the paramilitary Pakistani Rangers go on trial Friday in Karachi charged with trying to kill Musharraf during a visit to the southern port city in April.
During his speech, Musharraf also promised that parliamentary elections set for October would be free and fair, despite opposition allegations of vote-rigging.
He also repeated calls for talks with India on resolving the Kashmir dispute, which brought the two nuclear-equipped nations to the brink of war in June.
Musharraf, however, denounced India's plan for elections in India-controlled Kashmir as simply "another effort to place a mask of legitimacy over India's illegal occupation" of the Himalayan region which both countries claim in its entirety.