By Naveed Raja
Osama bin Laden today broke his four week silence to urge Pakistanis to rise up in his support and defend Islam.
Arabic television channel al-Jazeera received a letter signed by bin Laden in which he tells the 140 million citizens of Pakistan to repel the "Christian crusade."
The terror chief's letter is calculated to whip up tensions in Afghanistan's neighbour just as President Pervez Musharraf tried to silence criticism of his backing for America.
The text of the letter said: "Osama bin Laden calls on Muslims in Pakistan to stand in the face of a Christian crusade against Islam," a Jazeera newsreader quoted the letter as saying.
It added: "Muslims in Afghanistan are being subjected to killing and the Pakistani government is standing beneath the Christian banner.
"The crusader war against Islam has intensified... The world is split into two. Part of it is under the head of infidels Bush, and the other half under the banner of Islam... Standing against wrong will strengthen us."
Today it was reported that Musharraf banned all right of assembly and protest indefinitely as he seeks to tighten his grip on power. He had already warned anyone plotting against him faces dire consequences.
Pakistan is a vital ally for the coalition against terror, not only for its geographical position but its intelligence on the Taliban and links to the Afghan regime.
Many experts say the worst case scenario would be if the liberal Musharraf government was toppled and replaced by an Islamic fundamentalist regime that could call on nuclear weapons and a massive, well equipped modern army.