US challenges Pakistani retreat from offensive

Posted in Broader Middle East | 04-May-04 | Author: Stephen Graham| Source: The Herald

A top US commander challenged Pakistan's counter-terrorism strategy near the Afghan border and said foreign militants holed up there must be eliminated.

"There are foreign fighters in those tribal areas who will have to be killed or captured," said Lieutenant General David Barno, commander of American forces in Afghanistan.

The Pakistani government has offered an amnesty to foreign militants in South Waziristan, a tribal region near the Afghan border where al Qaeda and Taliban rebels are believed to be living.

On Saturday, the government pushed back by one week an April 30 deadline for foreigners to surrender. Despite a threat of fresh military action, no foreign militants have yet taken up the amnesty offer.

"It's very important that the Pakistani military continue with their operations to go after the foreign fighters in particular, who in my view will not be reconciled," Barno said. A two-week military operation in South Waziristan in March left more than 120 people dead, but failed to capture any top al Qaeda men.

Hundreds of militants escaped and officials say they have moved to caves near the border with Afghanistan.

The bloodshed and limited success of the offensive have persuaded the Pakistani government to opt for negotiations instead of brute force.

The Pakistani interior minister has said that all but top al Qaeda and Taliban leaders can seek amnesties.

Barno, however, warned Pakistan that it was dealing with a terrorist network which was "very crafty and has great ability to ultimately not give anything up".

"We clearly still see significant elements of foreign fighters there – Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks . . . who are still using that area to advance their terrorist aims."

The Afghan government, meanwhile, plans to transfer hundreds of Pakistanis jailed for fighting with the Taliban from a notorious northern prison to Kabul.

A spokesman for Hamid Karzai, the president, said the prisoners would be moved to the Pul-e-Charki prison in the capital. Pakistan has called for the release of some 500 Pakistanis being held in Shiberghan, the base of Abdul Rashid Dostum, a northern warlord.

A spokesman for the Kabul jail, said more than 800 Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners will be transferred within days. AP