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U.S. Soldiers Hunt Taliban in Pakistan

Military: Covert operation expands to northwestern tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan.

April 29, 2002|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — U.S. ground troops have taken the war against terrorism to unruly tribal areas in northwestern Pakistan, local residents and government officials confirmed Sunday.

The expanding covert operation is a potential problem for President Pervez Musharraf, whose opponents in a broad spectrum of political and religious parties charge that he is surrendering Pakistan's sovereignty to the U.S. military and CIA operatives.

Twelve to 15 U.S. soldiers joined about 200 soldiers from Pakistan's Frontier Corps on Friday night in searching an abandoned school for Jalaluddin Haqqani, the former top commander in Afghanistan's Taliban regime, local resident Abdul Samaad said by telephone Sunday.

Haqqani was among thousands of Taliban troops and officials who fled Kabul, the Afghan capital, last fall as opposition Northern Alliance forces advanced to the city's outskirts.

The U.S. soldiers were in uniform and carrying weapons and other equipment, but they did not fire any shots during a four-hour operation in the North Waziristan tribal agency, Samaad added, quoting the school's watchman, Mir Akbar.

Musharraf's government has refused to discuss details of the operation publicly, just as it did after a joint U.S.-Pakistani mission led to the arrest last month of Abu Zubeida, a suspected senior lieutenant of Osama bin Laden's.

Speaking Sunday in Karachi, the country's commercial capital, Musharraf said that the U.S. forces were simply providing communications support and that they numbered no more than 10.

U.S. officials have been similarly close-mouthed. During a visit Saturday to Kabul, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld would say only that the U.S. has been pleased with the cooperation it has had from Pakistan in the war against terrorism.

U.S. Involvement a Sensitive Issue

The people living in the affected region resent U.S. involvement in the mission so strongly that they protested by shutting down the local market for three days, Samaad said.

Maulana Mohammed Din Dar, a local leader of the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Islam group, issued a statement Friday that offered cooperation with local forces but not the Americans.

Two helicopters brought the U.S. troops to the village of Dandi Durpa Khel, less than two miles west of the town of Miram Shah, about 6:30 p.m. Friday, Samaad said. He said they searched an abandoned Koranic school, or madrasa, founded by Haqqani. One or two of the Americans spoke Pashto, the dominant language of northwestern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. The Pakistani soldiers were members of the Tochi Scouts, a unit of the Frontier Corps, which is made up of local Pathans and dates to 19th century British rule.

A senior Pakistani Interior Ministry source confirmed that Friday's raid had taken place but said no one was arrested and claimed that U.S. personnel were civilians who were not in uniform.

Samaad said the Americans had left the area, but a man who recently returned from the area, Mahmood Khattak, said an official had told him the U.S. forces were continuing their search mission in the agencies of South and North Waziristan.

Khattak added that he had heard that the forces might be planning a raid in Angur Hada, a small town in South Waziristan near the Pakistani-Afghan border.

Reports of U.S. soldiers carrying out covert operations on Pakistani soil provide ammunition for the political enemies of Musharraf, who hopes to legitimize his 1999 bloodless coup through a referendum Tuesday.

"We are concerned that Gen. Pervez Musharraf has not taken the nation into confidence on the latest developments taking place," said Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

"The general might be bending over backward in order to secure the support of the [anti-terrorism] coalition, and international community, for his unconstitutional acts in Pakistan and suppression of democracy," Babar said. Bhutto, who faces corruption charges in Pakistan, is living in self-imposed exile in London and Dubai.

For Musharraf, the biggest risk of allowing U.S. troops to operate in Pakistan is that they might end up in a firefight and injure or kill Pakistanis. The public outrage would be fierce, Babar said.

"I have no doubt about that," he said. "If the foreign troops are seen patrolling in Pakistani territory, and also start shooting with impunity, it will create a serious backlash and great resentment."

The search for Haqqani in a barren, mountainous region of Pakistan near the Afghan border is believed to be linked to the arrest of Abu Zubeida.

Any attempt to arrest Haqqani is likely to be risky because he is known as a cunning guerrilla commander who was once a U.S. ally in the Aghan war against Soviet occupation in the 1980s.

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