300 militants reported killed

Al-Qaida links suspected, Pakistani leader says

April 13, 2007|By Mubashir Zaidi and Henry Chu | Mubashir Zaidi and Henry Chu,Los Angeles Times

Islamabad, Pakistan -- Tribal fighters near the Afghanistan border have in the past few weeks killed 300 foreign militants suspected of links to al-Qaida, President Pervez Musharraf said yesterday.

Speaking at a conference on counterterrorism in Islamabad, Musharraf acknowledged for the first time that Pakistan's military has been assisting the tribesmen in their battle against mostly Uzbek militants who have found a haven in the remote, lawless region of South Waziristan.

"The people of South Waziristan now have risen against the foreigners," Musharraf said. "They have killed about 300 of them, and they got support from the Pakistan army. They asked for support."

Under a deal reached last year, Musharraf scaled back Pakistani forces in the mountainous area in exchange for a pledge by tribal leaders to drive out militants tied to al-Qaida and the radical Taliban movement.

Hundreds of foreign extremists have taken shelter in South Waziristan in recent years, fleeing Afghanistan after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 or official crackdowns in their home countries.

Critics have questioned the efficacy of such an agreement in a region known for sympathy toward the Taliban, but Musharraf said the recent clashes show that the strategy is working.

Because of South Waziristan's isolation, the death toll reported by the Pakistani leader could not be independently verified.

Fighting began early last month after a reported confrontation between an Uzbek and a local tribal elder. Last week, tribesmen rallied more fighters by beating traditional war drums in the town of Wana.

Musharraf has been under increasing pressure from the United States to show more results from his commitment to stamp out militancy and capture al-Qaida followers in Pakistan, especially in the border areas. Analysts say pro-Taliban forces receive training in Pakistani territory and cross into Afghanistan to carry out attacks against U.S. and other coalition troops.

Musharraf, a general who seized power in a coup eight years ago, said yesterday that 700 al-Qaida members had been rounded up since the end of 2001. He scoffed at suggestions that he and the Pakistani military establishment were declaring support of U.S. anti-terrorism while tacitly allowing - or even encouraging - Islamic militants to operate.

"If Pakistan is bluffing, if I am bluffing and the ISI is bluffing, I think we should be out of" the anti-terrorist coalition, he said, referring to the Inter-Services Intelligence department, Pakistan's military spy agency.

Across the border in Afghanistan, U.S. and Afghan troops killed at least two dozen Taliban militants in Zabol province early yesterday, the U.S.-led coalition said in a statement.

Mubashir Zaidi and Henry Chu write for the Los Angeles Times.

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