Taliban prayer-testers
scour the streets

KABUL, July 8,1998 (AFP) - Teams of Taliban fighters took to the streets of the Afghan capital Wednesday making sure its war-weary residents knew how to say their prayers, an AFP reporter saw.

Puritanical Moslem fighters armed with rubber hoses and leather straps sealed off a major road intersection checking the accuracy of Koranic recitation as well as making routine inspections of beards that all men are required to sport.

One passing cyclist was seen being dealt a blow for failing to read a passage from the Koran, a failure likely to be widespread in a country where only 30 per cent of the population are literate.

The afternoon blockade forced hundreds of cars, cyclists and pedestrians to make a four kilometer (2.5-mile) detour around Kabul's pot-holed backstreets to avoid the religious inspection.

Inspectors said they were unwilling to announce how many passers by had been punished, but the figure is likely to be high given the scale of the operation.

Residents said the prayer testing drive has also been in force in other parts of the city since the initiative of Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar was announced on national radio nearly two weeks ago.

Although the announcement ordered teams from the ministry for the fostering of virtue and suppression of vice to test people's knowledge of Koranic prayers, examiners were told to "refrain from disgracing and subjecting people to humiliation."

In the past week relgious police teams operating in the once-liberal Kabul have stepped up punishment of men with inadequate beards, shopkeepers trading during prayer time and residents sporting western clothing or stylish haircuts.

The Taliban seized Kabul nearly two years ago and hold around two thirds of the country. The Islamic militia of religious students say they have imposed the world's purest Islamic state.

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