Pakistani district is described as site of terrorist camps

Many sources in region point to Mansehra as key area of training

August 28, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MANSEHRA DISTRICT, Pakistan - Mujahid Mohiyuddin insists that he and his district are innocent.

Speaking in his religious seminary, or madrassa, in the Mansehra district of northern Pakistan, Mohiyuddin, a young cleric, admitted receiving military training in 1996 from Harkat-ul-Mujahedeen, or "Movement for Holy Warriors," a Pakistani group linked to al-Qaida and the killing of the American journalist Daniel Pearl.

But he insisted that the group had disbanded and that training camps no longer operated in the Mansehra district. "The government has imposed restrictions on the holy war," he said. "There are not any training camps in the country, especially Mansehra."

This picturesque area of rolling Himalayan foothills, thick forests and isolated farms is the focus of bitter charges that Pakistan continues to allow terrorist training camps to operate on its soil. Over the past year, Taliban prisoners captured in Afghanistan, opposition politicians in Pakistan, and Afghan and Indian government officials have said repeatedly that training camps are active in the Mansehra district and other parts of Pakistan.

Last summer, a young Pakistani captured with Taliban forces in Afghanistan said in an interview with The New York Times that he was trained in the Mansehra district by Harkat-ul-Mujahedeen, the group Mohiyuddin said had been disbanded.

An armed Pakistani captured in Afghanistan told a private Afghan television channel in June that he had been trained in a camp there. Three Pakistanis recently sentenced to jail terms in Afghanistan for trying to assassinate the U.S. ambassador said they had been trained in the district, according to an Afghan intelligence official.

In addition, a 28-year-old night watchman from Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, caught in Afghanistan on his way to join the mujahedeen, described, in an interview in a jail in Kabul, the Afghan capital, his training in the district.

The interview took place in an office at the jail Aug. 14 with no guards present. The watchman, Sher Ali, described a seemingly underground system in Pakistan that trains fighters and sends them into Afghanistan. He said he met an Afghan at a friend's house in Miranshah, in Pakistan's tribal areas of North Waziristan, a lawless mountain region in which Pakistan says it has deployed 70,000 troops to hunt for militants.

After receiving a letter and directions from the Afghan, he journeyed alone to a camp hidden high in the mountains above the Mansehra district. "Nowadays they don't have legal camps," he said, "I got the feeling it was a very secret place."

He was given directions and walked for three hours into the hills until he came to a small white tent pitched in a clearing. From there, two men took him on foot for an hour or two, farther into the mountains, and he joined a group of 20 Pakistanis. Some, he said, were being trained to fight Indian forces in the disputed region of Kashmir and some were to go to Afghanistan.

There were no buildings, he said, and the men slept on the ground. Their trainer, whom they knew as Maksud, spoke Urdu, he said. "He taught us to use a Kalashnikov and a rocket-propelled grenade," he said. After just three weeks there, he set off for Afghanistan, he said.

But the Afghan police identified him as a Pakistani and detained him.

Pakistani officials say they are aggressively cracking down on all militants in their country. In an interview July 29, Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, said there were no training camps operating in Pakistan with government support. This spring, militant groups began using abandoned camps in the Pakistan-controlled portion of the disputed Kashmir region, he said, but government forces stopped them.

"There were some vacant camps, and we got information they were being used," said Musharraf. "We are now going to occupy them."

U.S. officials have credited Pakistan with aggressively cracking down on militant groups, particularly al-Qaida. At the same time, Afghan and American officials say Pakistan is making little effort to fight the Taliban. These officials say Pakistan is effectively holding that group in reserve, intending to use it to dominate Afghanistan once the United States withdraws its troops.

Independent and reliable confirmation of any claims about the camps is difficult, if not impossible, to come by. Foreign journalists are not allowed free access to the lawless tribal regions along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and the Pakistani-controlled portion of Kashmir, two areas where many of the camps are reported to be operating.

Pakistani officials have also begun issuing restricted visas that bar foreign journalists from traveling to the western cities of Quetta and Peshawar, two other places where there are said to be training camps. Pakistani officials say the restrictions are for the journalists' safety.

But foreign journalists are allowed to travel to the Mansehra district, an area only 60 miles north of Islamabad that is famed for its training camps.

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