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Pakistan: Hunt For Taliban, Al-Qaeda Fugitives Finds Little Local Support

U.S. and Pakistani forces have intensified the hunt for Al-Qaeda and Taliban fugitives in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Several key suspects have been apprehended, but efforts have been hampered by the fact that Al-Qaeda and the Taliban have numerous sympathizers on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, especially in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province.

Prague, 12 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Pakistani intelligence officials say that since the end of 2001, they have arrested nearly 500 Al-Qaeda and Taliban fugitives fleeing Afghanistan.

The recent arrest of Khalid Shaykh Muhammad, one of Al-Qaeda's most influential figures, is considered a particular success and one that may bring officials closer to their most desired target: Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

But challenges remain. Pakistan's semiautonomous Northwest Frontier Province has proved to be a sanctuary for many fugitives. Pashtun tribes living in the province sympathize with Taliban members and are not eager to cooperate with authorities.

Rahimullah Yusufzai is executive editor of "The News International," an English-language daily based in Peshawar, the capital of the Northwest Frontier Province.

Yusufzai said progress has been made in the hunt for Taliban and Al-Qaeda fugitives in Pakistan. "Now, after the capture of one of the Al-Qaeda suspects -- Khalid Shaykh Muhammad on March 1, in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi -- the hunt has intensified. And according to American and Pakistani military officials, they have obtained some new information from Khalid Shaykh and from one of his colleagues, Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi, who was captured along with him. And based on that information they have intensified the hunt," Yusufzai said.

Zeb Rizwan, an analyst at the state-funded Institute for Regional Studies in Islamabad, agrees. "[Government forces] have been working very smoothly, and the government has been very supportive, very active. I think it is successful," Rizwan said.

But despite a certain measure of success in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, officials' inability to capture bin Laden has proved a key failure. "They are trying to use different tactics. Not only they have got hundreds of informers in the two countries [Pakistan and Afghanistan], but they are also using technology, satellites, and, you know, [tapping] telephones. So, they employ every method to try to capture Mr. bin Laden, but until now, they haven't been able to capture either him or other top Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders," Yusufzai said.

Pakistan today denied reports that bin Laden had been arrested. Reuters quoted Pakistani Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayat as saying the report -- made by an official from a small Pakistani political party -- was "unfounded and absolutely baseless." Officials in Washington likewise said they had no information to back up the report.

Yusufzai said the Northwest Frontier Province poses special problems for those involved in the hunt. The rough terrain and porous state border make the province a good base for militants who may be planning a guerrilla war in Afghanistan. He said there is no doubt that many Al-Qaeda and Taliban fugitives are hiding here.

The population of the province is about 5.2 million and mainly Pashtun, the same ethnic group that made up the core Taliban membership. "Often, the same tribe is living in Pakistan and in Afghanistan on both sides of the border. They share tribal affinity, they speak the same language, they are all Muslims, they have the same history and the same customs, and the border is very long. It is about 2,500 kilometers long between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and it is largely mountainous, very porous. It can be easily crossed, and that's why there's a lot of illegal traffic on this border, both of men and smuggled goods," Yusufzai said.

The province consists of seven administrative units and is semiautonomous. The people living there have their own tribal customs and traditions. Councils of elders (jirgas) make decisions with little input from the central government. Only a handful of elders in the province have offered to cooperate in the hunt for the fugitives.

Rizwan said there is a widespread belief in the province that the Taliban had nothing to do with the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States and that the militia is an innocent victim of U.S. allegations. "No proof has been provided to anybody about [the Taliban's] involvement, and what they cannot understand is how can these people be considered the main culprits when most, rather, all, of the hijackers were people of Middle Eastern origin," Rizwan said.

Yusufzai said some people have agreed to cooperate with Pakistani or U.S. intelligence agents in exchange for financial compensation. "I think dollars did help in catching some people, for example Khalid Shaykh Muhammad. And there are reports that, you know, he was captured because one of his Egyptian friends informed the Americans and pocketed a $25 million reward. In the past, also, the Americans were able to capture Ramzi Yusuf in Pakistan. And again, there was a big reward [offered] for him, and one of his friends, actually, had informed the Americans and had taken the reward," Yusufzai said.

Yusufzai said the reward for bin Laden has climbed from $5 million, in the first several weeks following the 11 September attacks, to some $25 million for information leading to his arrest. An additional $25 million has been offered for information leading directly to the apprehension of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda's No. 2 official.

But Yusufzai said most Pakistanis remain staunchly opposed to U.S. policy in the region and have no desire to see bin Laden or other Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders captured.