In a country of countless drab, down-at-heel small towns, the Pakistani town of Mirpur is a striking exception.
Banks, glitzy shopping malls, car showrooms, hotels and travel companies line the main street of the town on the southern, low-land edge of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir.
But news that a young man with roots in the town was central to a plot to blow up airliners over the Atlantic has raised fears that its prosperity, founded on a long link with Britain, could be in peril.
“The terrorists have put the future of Mirpur’s people at stake,” said Ali Akbar, who was among the first wave of people to leave the town for Britain in the 1950s.
Many followed in the 1960s after they were forced from their land to make way for a dam.
About three quarters of all the people of Pakistani descent in Britain come from the region and the money they have sent back has fuelled its boom.
Akbar, back to oversee his investment in a multi-story shopping center, said terrorism was changing the perceptions of many British people about people of Pakistani descent.
“Whatever respect we enjoyed in the beginning as hardworking people is not there any more. We have become unwanted because of our own faults,” said Akbar, who said his son was a senior official in the English city of Birmingham.
Pakistan said last week it was holding a man called Rashid Rauf who it said was a “key person” in the plot to blow up airliners travelling from Britain to the United States.
Rauf was a British citizen of Pakistani origin and was an al-Qaida operative with links in Afghanistan, Pakistan said.
According to people in the Mirpur area, Rauf’s father emigrated to Britain decades ago and set up a bakery in Birmingham. His family still has homes in Mirpur and a village in the area.
‘People are worried’
Saif ul-Islam, who runs the Manchester Travel Agency on Mirpur’s main street, said flight bookings between Britain and Pakistan were full for August and September, when many people of Pakistani descent in Britain take advantage of holidays to visit Mirpur.
But many were apprehensive about the fall-out from the bomb plot, he said.
“People are worried they will be subjected to strict security measures and those from Mirpur will be looked at with suspicion because of the plotters’ links here,” he said.
Bankers say security fears generated by the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 and the London bombings last year have increased the flow of funds to Pakistan as people were keen to get money home in case new transfer restrictions were imposed.
There was no evidence of any fresh wave of funds coming back since the airliner plot was foiled, bankers in Mirpur said, but a Mirpur money-changer said news of the plot had hit his trade.
“Business is a bit less,” said Mohammad Sohail, director of a branch of Khanani and Kaalia money changers.
Sohail, who said daily transactions were usually worth about $330,000, said he hoped the bomb plot would have no lasting impact on Mirpur, most of whose people were hard-working folk with nothing to do with terrorism.
Akbar echoed that, saying people had used religion to brainwash young men.
“Those who are involved in terrorism are neither Muslims nor Pakistanis,” he said.