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Islamists want Pakistan province renamed "Afghania"

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - An Islamic alliance ruling Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan has proposed changing the region’s name to “Afghania”, a provincial minister said on Wednesday.

The NWFP government’s request to the federal government in Islamabad is likely to rekindle an old debate over the name of the region dominated by ethnic Pashtuns, who live on both sides of the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“Constitutionally there is no bar on us to rename the province on our own but we want to resolve this issue in an amicable manner,” Malik Zafar Azam, NWFP’s law minister, told Reuters.

He said the provincial government had conducted a survey to find an alternative name for the region, designated North West Frontier Province since the days of the British Raj in pre-partition India, and most people favored “Afghania”.

“We have firmed up our proposal and plan to put it before the federal government’s inter-provincial coordination committee in its next meeting.”

Central government officials were unavailable for comment.

Pashtun nationalists have long demanded the old colonial name be changed as it only indicates a geographical location rather than the ethnicity of its inhabitants, as in the other three Pakistan provinces -- Punjab for Punjabis, Sindh for Sindhis and Baluchistan for Baluchis.

The nationalists had proposed “Pakhtunkhwa” as the new name for the province after its Pashtun, or Pakhtun, population, but the central government is fearful it would revive old differences with Afghanistan over the Pashtun territory, known as Pashtoonistan, straddling both sides of the border.

Afghanistan has never recognized the 2,640 km (1,610) frontier, known as the Durand Line after the British colonialist who drew it. Afghans say the border robbed Afghanistan of land it traditionally held and it unfairly divides Pashtuns.

The Pashtoonistan issue strained relations between the two neighbors in the 1950s and 1960s, although it faded after Islamists gained influence in the border areas in the 1970s.

The presence of a large number of Pashtuns in Pakistan’s ruling establishment is another reason why the issue has lost traction.

Observers say the new proposal by the Islamic Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal alliance, which rose to power by exploiting anti-American sentiments in the region in 2002 after U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, could be a move to win sympathies of Pashtun tribes ahead of elections due later this year or in early 2008.

Pashtun nationalists said provincial assemblies had passed resolutions to change the name to Pakhtunkhwa and they could not support the name proposed by Islamists.

“We stand by our proposal that the province should be named Pakhtunkhwa. It is a centuries old name for our land and that’s why we support this,” said Ghulam Ahmed Bilour, vice president of the Awami National Party, the main nationalist group in the province.