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Arrest Of Senior Taliban Chief In Pakistan Raises Western Hopes

ISLAMABAD -- Pakistan's security forces have made a rare arrest of a senior Afghan Taliban commander near the southwestern city of Quetta, Pakistani security officials and coalition forces in Afghanistan told Reuters.

A statement issued by British forces in Afghanistan said Mullah Rahim, operational commander of Taliban forces in Helmand, had surrendered to "authorities in Pakistan" on July 19.

Western officials in the past have suspected the Pakistani security services of turning a blind eye to the presence of Taliban leaders in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan.

Recent unpublicized arrests in Quetta, however, raised hopes of a sea-change in Pakistan, a senior Western official said.

"We've seen signs of change...yes, and arrests," said an official in Islamabad earlier this week.

Pakistan had still to confirm Rahim's capture, but Pakistani security officials, who had requested anonymity, had told Reuters on July 21 that a suspect believed to have been the Taliban commander in Helmand, had been caught over the weekend.

They said the man had been caught during a raid on a house in Kharotabad area of Quetta.

Mounting Casualties

"We conducted a raid three days ago based on very credible information that some important Taliban figures were hiding with an Afghan family there," a senior intelligence official said.

Western allies suffering mounting casualties among troops in Afghanistan have put Pakistan under pressure to act against Taliban taking sanctuary on its territory.

The intensity of the pressure and more frequent U.S. drone-aircraft missile attacks on militant targets in Pakistani tribal areas have led to frenzied speculation in Pakistani media that Western forces in Afghanistan could soon take unilateral action.

Deployment of more NATO troops near the Pakistan border has prompted fears they could be ordered across on "hot pursuit" or covert missions to eliminate "high-value targets."

Pakistan opposes any such action that would violate its sovereignty and risk escalating the conflict in ethnic-Pashtun lands straddling the frontier.

Patchy Record

The British statement said that hours after Rahim's arrest in Pakistan British forces killed another senior Taliban leader, the third in as many weeks.

Abdul Razaq, alias Mullah Sheikh, was killed along with three fighters in a missile strike after midnight on July 20 at Musa Qala, a town in Helmand that has changed hands several times.

Similar successes have been trumpeted in the past, and Taliban sources told Reuters on July 23 that Rahim had already been replaced by Mullah Nayeem as commander in Helmand.

Last December, the Afghan Defense Ministry said Mullah Rahim Akhond, the Taliban's governor for Helmand, and Mullah Mateen Akhond, district governor in Musa Qala, had been caught.

Various reasons have been put forward for Pakistan's inaction against Taliban in and around Quetta since the Islamist militia was driven from power by U.S. backed forces in late 2001.

Pakistan has said it has been given no actionable information by Afghanistan or NATO and maintained that top leaders, including Taliban supremo Mullah Mohammad Omar, were in Afghanistan.

Some analysts say Pakistan fears a violent backlash from the Taliban and their sympathizers if they actively hunt down leaders of a movement that had been supported by the Pakistani military from the mid-1990s until late 2001.

Patchy Record

Other Pakistani, Afghan, and American analysts say Pakistani intelligence is playing a double game to keep alive Taliban assets to use as leverage to reassert influence in Kabul once Western forces pull out of Afghanistan.

Pakistan has actively hunted Al-Qaeda fighters in tribal areas, and been sucked into a conflict among the Pakistani Taliban based in the region. But Pakistan's record in combating Afghan Taliban has been patchy.

In February, Mullah Mansur Dadullah, a commander who had been dismissed by Mullah Omar, was caught in Baluchistan.

In March last year, Pakistani security forces in Quetta arrested Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, a former Taliban defense minister and third-most-senior member of its leadership council.

Akhund's arrest was disclosed to Reuters by several security officials, though it was never confirmed by Pakistani authorities.