Three airports raise suspicion of Pakistanis

Many speculate air bases are launching points for attacks on Afghanistan

War On Terrorism

October 22, 2001|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- When a U.S. helicopter crashed in Pakistan early Saturday, killing two people, it was on its way to Dalbandin air base in the remote desert of southwestern Balochistan province.

Dalbandin, a small town about 40 miles from the Afghanistan border, is the site of one of three airports in Pakistan being used by the United States as part of its anti-terrorism campaign -- all of them the subject of tremendous curiosity and debate by the Pakistani people.

The second air base is in Pasni, a coastal fishing town also in Balochistan province, which shares an 800-mile border with Afghanistan. Pakistan has also granted the United States permission to use an air base in Jacobabad, a small town about 200 miles from the Afghanistan border in Sindh province.

Officially, the bases are being used for search-and-rescue operations to support the military campaign. But many Pakistanis and local news media remain suspicious of their country's involvement in the attacks, speculating that the bases are key launching points for attacks on Afghanistan.

Pakistani government officials have denied such speculation and play down the U.S. troops' presence because of the strong anti-American feelings within Pakistan's borders. Violent demonstrations led by hard-line Islamic groups have rocked Islamabad, Karachi, Quetta, Peshawar and other cities since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

The Pakistani government has tried to quell the protests near the air bases, cordoning off areas around them and warning local political and religious activists and workers to stay clear of these sites or face action by the military and police.

That was the case last week, when demonstrators targeted Jacobabad, touching off violent clashes with police that left several protesters dead.

In Dalbandin, the Pakistani army has placed restrictions on residents, including implementing a curfew and blocking outsiders from entering the town.

The News, an Islamabad English-language newspaper, reported yesterday that 2,000 U.S. troops were operating in Pakistan, the largest American force in the country ever.

The U.S. presence, it said, was larger than during the Cold War, when the United States was involved in a covert operation assisting Afghanistan's mujahedeen fighters in their struggle against Soviet occupation.

According to local accounts, residents living near the air bases have reported increased flight activity at the bases, some saying there are hundreds of U.S. soldiers stationed at Jacobabad and at least 20 helicopter flights leaving from Dalbandin. But it is difficult to verify these reports because the Pakistani government does not allow the news media near the bases.

But the government's denials of attacks being launched from Pakistan temper reports that suggest military activity at the bases. The News, for instance, also published an article yesterday in which Maj. Gen. Rashid Qureshi, director-general of Inter Services Public Relations, said no Americans are carrying out military activity on Pakistani soil. Pakistan is providing the United States only with logistical support, he said.

"No operation has been launched from any place in Pakistan," he told The News. The Pentagon has said the two U.S. soldiers killed in the helicopter crash near Dalbandin on Saturday were supporting search-and-rescue missions and had not entered Afghanistan.

It remains unclear what caused the helicopter to crash.

The Pentagon denied Taliban reports that the helicopter had been shot down. Instead, Defense Department officials suggested that a huge cloud of dust being kicked up by the helicopter's rotor blades might have caused the accident. The dust may have disoriented the pilot or caused other problems that led to the crash, they said.

Wire services contributed to this article.

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