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Sunday, Sept 13
Tens of thousands of people gathering to hear Anwar in Mahathir's hometown
By ALVIN UNG (Associated Press)

JITRA, Malaysia (AP) - Tens of thousands of people streamed into Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's hometown on Saturday to hear his sacked deputy defend himself against sexual misconduct allegations.

Mahathir fired Anwar Ibrahim as his deputy and finance minister on Sept. 2, saying he was immoral and unfit to lead this Southeast Asian nation. Police are investigating eight criminal charges against him and say he could face arrest.

Anwar has vehemently denied all allegations, saying they were crafted by his former mentor to undermine his growing popularity and challenge to Mahathir's 17-year rule.

Toward midnight Saturday, there were so many cars and people on the road leading to Jitra, Mahathir's birthplace, that thousands more had to walk for kilometers (miles) on foot to this small town in Kedah state in northern Malaysia.

Most were Mahathir supporters, but felt that the government had gone too far in its attacks on Anwar.

''Mahathir has done a good job, but he has gone overboard,'' said Ahmad Zabri, one of dozens of food vendors who rushed to the scene to sell their goods.

''We don't believe all the charges. It's overkill and it has backfired,'' said an engineer with a government department who asked that his name not be used. ''When I go to the coffee shop, people say, 'This is nonsense.'''

Earlier in the day, Anwar spoke to some 5,000 in his hometown of Cherok Tok Kun in nearby Penang state, asking them to dismiss the allegations and stand by him.

''I'm back in Penang, I haven't forgotten my roots,'' Anwar shouted from a raised platform outside his father's modest, two-story house.

He said he would travel the country to rehabilitate himself within the ruling United Malaysia National Organization, from which he was expelled last week. He also is launching his government reform campaign calling for more democratic freedoms and government transparency.

''The newspapers have vilified me,'' Anwar said. ''My name has been smeared on national television, but the more they smear me, the stronger the support.''

Government-backed media have reported many of the lurid sexual allegations, including claims of sodomy and wig-wearing trysts, drawn from police affidavits filed in court during their investigation against Anwar.

In the capital of Kuala Lumpur, Mahathir on Saturday warned he was ready to ''take action'' if Anwar's campaign stirred up public disorder.

In Penang, the rally was attended by several UMNO division chiefs, one launching a petition drive calling on Mahathir to reinstate Anwar to the party that has dominated Malaysian politics since independence in 1957.

''The action against Anwar is a culmination of what's rotten in the government,'' said Mazlan Saad, a spokesman for a private voluntary organization. ''Anwar symbolizes the future of the country. The one person that really destabilizes Malaysia is Mahathir.''

Though political rallies are illegal in Malaysia without a police permit, no police were seen at the house or along the winding dirt road leading to the compound.

Anwar, 51, appears to be courting conservative Muslims often at odds with Mahathir's secular rule. On Friday he visited a famous mosque in the capital that is the center for religious debate. Later he called on renown Islamic scholar Harun Din, banned from televised religious shows as his views were seen by the government as too extreme.

Malaysia has maintained stability since independence, due in part the government says, to a degree of separation between mosque and state. Although 60 percent of the population are indigenous Muslim Malays, the other 40 percent are ethnic Chinese and Indians, most of whom are Buddhists, Christians and Hindus.

''Anwar's more credible than Mahathir because he's holier,'' said Amir, a 26-year-old farmer from the village of Dead Elephant in Kedah. ''We completely reject the idea that he's involved in a sex scandal.''