Sun, Mar 14, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Taliban fugitives flood across Pakistan's porous border

EXIT Pakistan officials may talk the talk about catching al-Qaeda and Taliban outlaws, but those on the ground say sympathizers are spiriting fugitives out of Afghanistan

AP , SPIN BOLDAK, AFGHANISTAN

The Afghan border chief gestures toward a fresh spray of bullet holes across his pickup truck, then points toward the place he says the Taliban attackers came from: Pakistan.

Despite a crackdown involving tens of thousands of troops and a pledge by President General Pervez Musharraf to do all he can in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, Afghans say a steady stream of Taliban and al-Qaeda fugitives are finding a safe haven on Pakistan's side of the 3,300km border.

"See the trees? They started from that border post," said Palawan, the shaven-headed Afghan border chief. Afterward, "the vehicles came from there, and took the Taliban away."

Sealing the border is vital if a promised spring offensive by American troops is to succeed in its main goal, crushing Taliban resistance and capturing al-Qaeda leaders like bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, both believed in hiding somewhere along the porous frontier.

The US military has described the strategy as a "hammer and anvil" approach, with Pakistani troops moving into semiautonomous tribal areas on their side of the border, and Afghans and American forces sweeping the forbidding terrain on the other.

But Palawan and other Afghan security officials say they aren't convinced that offensives will succeed, because Pakistan's security and intelligence services are rife with Taliban and al-Qaeda sympathizers.

"They are living there, they are coming to do the terror attacks, and they are going back," Palawan said, gun at his side as he drives along the barren border.

Pakistani officials scoff at the charges and say they are doing everything they can to arrest Taliban and al-Qaeda fugitives.

"This is nonsense," Pakistan Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said in Islamabad. "We are fighting against terrorists, not sheltering them."

Pakistan can point to an impressive record: It has arrested more than 500 al-Qaeda suspects since the Sept. 11 attacks and it has recently deployed 70,000 troops to the tribal regions of Waziristan.

But Palawan is not alone in his suspicions, and Afghans have not forgotten the strong support Pakistan gave to the former Taliban regime before Musharraf abandoned them in favor of the US just after the attacks on New York and Washington. Pakistan supplied money, arms and shelter to Islamic guerrillas, including the Taliban, during the guerrilla campaign in the 1980s against Afghanistan's then-Soviet occupiers.

"Without Pakistan, the Taliban would be finished. Without the Taliban, al-Qaeda would be finished," General Khan Mohammed, regional commander of the Afghan militia, said in Kandahar, capital of the southern province that includes Spin Boldak.

Some Afghans say Pakistan's security and intelligence services make a distinction between turning away al-Qaeda members -- many of them Arabs foreign to the region -- and turning away their former Taliban allies seeking shelter.

"I don't think there's been a fundamental shift in the perception of the Taliban in the Pakistan military," said Vikram Parekh, an analyst with the International Crisis Group in Kabul, the Afghan capital. "That's going to be the big problem," -- whether Pakistan's military "draws a line between al-Qaeda and the Taliban."

Afghan intelligence officials say they have intercepted phone conversations from Taliban commanders in Quetta, the largest Pakistani city near the southern border.

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