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Fury in Pak province as troops hunt al Qaida men

Lahore, Sept. 6: Pathan leaders are furious over the launch of a Pakistani military operation in the North West Frontier Province to arrest Taliban and al Qaida leaders fleeing fighting in Afghanistan.

Helicopters were flying over border areas yesterday looking for infiltrators after thousands of troops arrived at Bannu air base in lorries. Reports that a small detachment of US special forces was also involved could not be confirmed.

The soldiers have cordoned off Bannu, begun house-to-house searches in some parts of the city and launched patrols in the mountains.

The Pakistani army claimed that it was a normal military exercise but officials in Bannu said the troops were hunting for al Qaida and Taliban leaders, who are either hiding in Pakistan or escaping from Afghanistan after recent bloody fighting there. Afghan officers say 124 Taliban were killed in a nine-day battle in Zabul province.

Operations such as this, though deemed essential in the war against terrorism, are under threat in the face of growing sympathy for the extremists. President Pervez Musharraf has to balance public opposition, unrest in the army and growing sympathy for the Taliban with demands for co-operation from Washington.

Yesterday the NWFP assembly, dominated by mullahs from the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, erupted in fury. Speaker after speaker denounced the president for being a stooge of the Americans, allowing US forces into the province without seeking permission from the provincial government.

“The military rulers have been following the dictates of the US since September 11 and it is a disgrace for our people to put them at the mercy of US forces,” said Hamid Shah, an assemblyman from Bannu.

Akram Durrani, the chief minister of the province and an MMA member, went to Islamabad to complain to federal ministers about the military operation. “We cannot allow anybody to use our soil for their interests because it creates unrest among the people,” he said.

There is intense speculation in Bannu that the aim of the operation is to hunt down Osama bin Laden, who is suspected of hiding in the adjacent tribal areas of north and south Waziristan. Retired military officers say the operation may also be linked to the recent arrests of several mid-level army officers, based in nearby towns who were suspected of providing sanctuaries and safe houses for Taliban and possibly al Qaida leaders.

At least four, and possibly as many as 19, officers were held. Their intense interrogation by Pakistani intelligence may have revealed the whereabouts of other hideouts in the Bannu region.

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