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Afghanistan: Northwest Governor Says Foreign Militants Regrouping Near Afghan Border

  • Ron Synovitz --> Afghan President Hamid Karzai (left) with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf (file photo) The governor of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) has expressed fears that what he calls "foreign terrorists" are regrouping in the tribal regions of Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan. Governor Iftikhar Hussain Gillani made the remarks late yesterday after a series of cross-border clashes earlier this week between Afghan and Pakistani troops. Those troops are meant to be cooperating with U.S.-led coalition forces on their respective sides of the border in a hunt for Al-Qaeda fighters who fled to the region after the collapse of the Taliban regime in late 2001.

Prague, 6 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- NWFP Governor Gillani said remaining Al-Qaeda fighters in tribal regions like South Waziristan are now under tremendous pressure from Pakistan's army.

Pashtun tribesmen living in the tribal regions are thought to be sympathetic to Al-Qaeda-linked fighters like Abdullah Mehsud, a local tribesman who has emerged as a key militant in the region in recent months. The tribal region of South Waziristan has been the scene of intense battles between militants and Pakistani security forces during the past 10 months.

Gillani said Pakistan's crackdown is forcing most foreign militants to seek out new safe havens and logistical bases.

"There were concerted operations which have taken place over the last two or three months, and the months of September and October -- and especially so in the Mehsud area," Gillani said. "Most [foreign terrorist] dens, their harboring areas, and their logistic areas have been destroyed. So I think, because of that, they are under tremendous pressure. Some of them, they have gone back to Afghanistan. Some have gone [further south] to [the Pakistani province of] Baluchistan. And some are now trying to regroup and reorganize and find new bases for themselves in the same [tribal] area, South Waziristan."

Gillani said he is convinced that Mehsud will be captured or killed by Pakistani forces if he refuses to surrender before a 15 January deadline that has been set by authorities in Islamabad.
Pakistan has asked the U.S. military to investigate what Islamabad has described as an "unprovoked" cross-border mortar attack on 2 January from Afghanistan's Khost Province.

"[Abdullah Mehsud] has got a group of terrorists," Gillani said. "He's getting support from abroad. He is training people. Now where is that money coming from? So, for the operations -- the communications infrastructure which he has, the transportation system that he is operating -- he is being supported by sources from outside."

Gillani did not specify the sources of Mehsud's support. He also brushed aside accusations by some Afghan officials that militants based on Pakistan's side of the border routinely cross into Afghanistan to carry out attacks.

Gillani said Pakistani security forces are doing their best to prevent cross-border infiltrations from their side. He said the Afghan forces need to do much more on their side of the porous, 2,400-kilometer border.

Earlier, Pakistan asked the U.S. military to investigate what Islamabad has described as an "unprovoked" cross-border mortar attack on 2 January from Afghanistan's Khost Province. One Pakistani soldier was killed by that attack on the nearby tribal region of North Waziristan.

Hayatulla Khan, a Pakistani journalist based in the tribal regions, said of the clashes: "The Afghan and Pakistani forces clashed [on 2 and 3 January] in the border area close to Afghanistan's Khost Province. From Pakistan's side, military scouts were involved in the clash. From the Afghan side, the Afghan forces fired mortars. This kind of incident also has happened in past, with Afghan and Pakistani forces mistakenly fighting. I went to the border area [on 4 January]. The media has been reporting that forces have been mobilized on both sides of the border. I did not see any evidence of that. The Afghan border posts are in the same positions and the Pakistani forces also remained in their previous positions."

Khost Governor Merajuddin Pathan told RFE/RL that the Afghan forces had fired the mortar shells after spotting Pakistani scouts who were approaching their positions.

"Pakistani forces moved near to our Moghulgi border post," Pathan said. "Our division and coalition forces prepared themselves quickly to confront their movement. But fortunately, after our preparations, they stopped their advance and withdrew."

U.S. Army Major Mark McCann, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, downplayed the cross-border clashes as a misunderstanding.

"First of all, coalition forces had no direct role in any of the incidents that occurred along the border," McCann said. "Initially, after the incidents, the government of Pakistan had expressed some concern to officials in the coalition forces. And as a response to that, we dispatched some forces to the scene. And so our role in this has been much more indirect than direct. We're working with both sides to try to help them determine what happened, to facilitate some understanding and, hopefully, to put some measures in place to ensure that misunderstandings like this don't happen again in the future."

NWFP Governor Gillani said foreign terrorists are trying to recruit unemployed, local youth in the tribal regions to replace several hundred Al-Qaeda fighters who have been killed during the past 10 months in the Pakistani army's crackdown. He said young people are being paid $250 to complete basic training.

Gillani said Pakistan is trying to confront the problem through a political dialogue with tribal leaders. He said the strategy appears to be working because tribal and religious leaders are being persuaded not to allow youngsters to be recruited.

He also said efforts are now under way to disarm resident of the tribal regions. He described the initial response as "good" but noted that most tribes obtained the weapons by buying them in neighboring Afghanistan.

(RFE/RL's Afghan Service contributed to this report.)