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Karzai warns Pakistan to watch border

The Afghan president threatens cross-border strikes if Taliban fighters continue to enter his country.

June 16, 2008|M. Karim Faiez and Laura King | Special to The Times

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — The president of Afghanistan threatened Sunday to send troops into Pakistan if Taliban fighters holed up there continue to cross the border and attack his country.

"Afghanistan has the right of self-defense," President Hamid Karzai told journalists at his presidential palace here. He specifically threatened to target Baitullah Mahsud, the self-declared commander of Pakistan's Taliban movement, who has boasted of sending fighters into Afghanistan.

The comments were the Afghan leader's sharpest warning yet to Pakistan's new leadership, which has been conducting negotiations with Islamic militants, including Mahsud, based in the tribal areas adjoining the border.

In response to the warning, Pakistan said it would consider any such strike by foreign forces inside its territory a violation of its sovereignty. "We hope that it is not the reinitiation of the blame game by Afghanistan," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed Sadiq said in a statement.

Analysts expressed doubt that Karzai would make good on his threat to send Afghan troops on cross-border raids, but said the remarks reflected rising frustration on the Afghan leader's part.

"It seems like more of a symbolic declaration rather than something that would really happen, but it shows the kind of pressure he is under," said analyst Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general.

The inability of Afghan and Western forces to contain the insurgency in Afghanistan, more than six years after the toppling of the Taliban movement, has hurt Karzai's domestic popularity and credibility at a time when he is preparing to stand for reelection.

Violence in Afghanistan has been edging upward in recent months, and North Atlantic Treaty Organization and U.S. officials have repeatedly said that militants continue to find haven in Pakistan as the warmer weather brings a surge in battlefield activity.

Afghan forces have been trying, with little success, to round up hundreds of prisoners who escaped in a brazen jailbreak Friday by the Taliban in the southern city of Kandahar. Afghan officials said 15 insurgents had been killed in the manhunt, but only five prisoners were reported recaptured.

Karzai survived an assassination attempt seven weeks ago, for which the Taliban claimed responsibility.

NATO- and U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan also have been absorbing heavy blows. Four U.S. Marines were killed Saturday in a roadside bombing, the heaviest American toll in a single incident this year. Military officials said Friday that fatalities among U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan last month had for the first time exceeded the toll in Iraq during the same period.

During the last year, Pakistani and Afghan leaders had toned down mutual accusations of lax policing of the countries' rugged 1,500-mile border. Karzai's outburst, however, could reignite long-standing ill will between two U.S. allies.

Pakistan has already issued a sharp protest over a cross-border clash last week in which 11 of its paramilitary troops were killed, apparently in U.S. airstrikes. The incident is under investigation, but the U.S. military has suggested that the strikes came after Afghan troops came under fire from insurgents who fled into Pakistan.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gillani, who has been in office less than three months, said the border is too long and porous for Pakistan alone to police, but that his government has no desire to foment violence in Afghanistan.

"We want a stable Afghanistan; it is in our interest," he told the Associated Press, adding that Karzai's comments would be "not well taken" on either side of the border.

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laura.king@latimes.com

Special correspondent Faiez reported from Kabul and Times staff writer King from London.

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