Pakistan arrested a former Taliban spokesman released by Afghanistan in 2007 in exchange for a kidnapped Italian journalist, intelligence officials said — a high-profile catch when many in the West are concerned tension with India could distract Pakistan from fighting militants.
Taliban leader Mullah Omar sent his former spokesman, Ustad Mohammed Yasir, to Pakistan last year to mediate between two Taliban groups in the Mohmand tribal area on the Afghan border, an intelligence official said on Saturday.
Many Taliban and al-Qaeda militants fled to Pakistan in 2001 after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan to oust the Taliban regime. The US has pushed Pakistan to crack down on the militants, who have regrouped in the country’s northwest and have launched attacks against Western forces across the border in Afghanistan.
The Pakistani military has launched several operations along the Afghan border, including one earlier last week to secure the main supply route for US and NATO troops in Afghanistan. But many in the West have questioned Islamabad’s willingness to target the Taliban because Pakistan backed the hard-line regime before its ouster.
Pakistan’s recent decision to redeploy troops away from the Afghan border toward India following tension over the deadly Mumbai attacks has heightened concerns that the fight against militants could languish. India has blamed Pakistani militants for the November attacks in India’s commercial capital that killed more than 160 people.
Pakistan first arrested Yasir in 2005 and sent him to Afghanistan, where he was released along with four other Taliban members in exchange for Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo, an intelligence official said.
The Afghan and Italian governments were heavily criticized for the swap — a step many observers feared would encourage more kidnappings.
Pakistani authorities arrested Yasir again on Thursday during a raid on his relatives’ house in the northwestern city of Peshawar near the Afghan border, a second intelligence official said. Security personnel are now interrogating Yasir, who served as the Taliban leader’s spokesman after the fall of the regime, the official added.
Omar escaped during the US-led invasion, and his location is unknown.
The intelligence officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Meanwhile, Two paramilitary soldiers were killed and four wounded in a landmine explosion in insurgency-hit southwest Pakistan on Saturday, an official said.
The soldiers were patrolling a gas field in the town of Dera Bugti in gas-rich Baluchistan Province on the border with Afghanistan and Iran when a landmine planted on a roadside exploded under their vehicle.
“Two soldiers were killed and four others wounded in the incident,” a spokesman for the paramilitary Frontier Corps said.
A spokesman for the Baluch Republican Army, Sarbaz Khan, later claimed responsibility of the attack. Hundreds of people have died in violence in the province since the insurgency flared in late 2004, with rebels demanding political autonomy and a greater share of profits from the region’s natural resources.
The province has also been hit by attacks blamed on Taliban militants and sectarian extremists.