Troops might chase foes into Pakistan, U.S. says

Cross-border pursuit would be `last resort,' commander promises

March 21, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan - The chief of U.S. forces here said yesterday that they might cross the border into Pakistan to capture or kill al-Qaida and Taliban fighters widely believed to have found sanctuary there.

In an interview at his headquarters here, Maj. Gen. Franklin L. Hagenbeck of the 10th Mountain Division said that chasing al-Qaida and Taliban fighters into Pakistan would be a "last resort" carried out with the approval of Pakistani leaders.

Just 20 miles from the border with Pakistan, near Khost, U.S. troops were attacked from several directions with mortars, small arms and rocket-propelled grenades for about an hour Tuesday night, U.S. military officials said. One soldier received a bullet wound in his left arm.

"Our forces returned fire, and B-1s and AC-130 gun ships responded," Gen. John W. Rosa Jr., deputy director of current operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a Pentagon news briefing.

Hagenbeck said it was not clear whether the Americans were caught in crossfire between Afghan factions or had come under attack from enemy fighters.

U.S. commanders have said that fighting in Afghanistan might increase as the snow melts this spring. There also are increasing signs that U.S. military leaders are thinking about broadening the field of action by moving against Taliban and al-Qaida sanctuaries in Pakistan, whose government says it has deployed thousands of troops to seal the border.

Hagenbeck suggested that sealing the border was not the Pakistani government's highest priority: "I think Pakistan is more focused on tensions with India."

He declined to give details but said that any move into Pakistan would likely be planned to thwart movements by the enemy rather than to chase them across national frontiers.

"Hot pursuit would probably be my last resort," Hagenbeck said.

This week, Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of U.S. forces in the region, asked Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to take part in joint military actions to apprehend al-Qaida and Taliban forces moving back and forth across the border, according to a senior Pakistani government official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Musharraf made no decision on Franks' request, the senior Pakistani official said.

On Tuesday, George M. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, in testimony to the Senate Armed Forces Committee, said he needed "a lot more help" from countries where al-Qaida and Taliban fighters might have fled.

"There's still many, many points of exit that people in small numbers can get out," Tenet said.

A decision by American forces to cross the border and strike al-Qaida sanctuaries is politically sensitive in Pakistan, where Musharraf's decision to side with the United States in its battle against Islamic militants has drawn widespread opposition.

The people living in the Afghan-Pakistani border region are overwhelmingly members of the Pashtun ethnic group, as were most of the Taliban.

The Pakistani government has denied knowingly harboring al-Qaida and Taliban fighters, although its intelligence agencies routinely aided the Taliban until Musharraf decided to break with the Afghan mullahs after the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center on Sept. 11.

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