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US, Pakistan in rift over fighters' fate

US, Pakistan in rift over fighters' fate

Author: Anne Barnard, Globe Staff
Publication: The Boston Globe
Date: November 23, 2001
URL: http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/327/nation/US_Pakistan_in_rift_over_fighters_fate+.shtml

Islamabad, Pakistan - Tensions heightened yesterday between the United States and Pakistan as the countries disagreed over the fate of Pakistani pro-Taliban fighters who are trapped in the embattled Afghan city of Kunduz. The new dispute came as the Pakistani government severed diplomatic ties with the Taliban regime - at the request of the United States - and closed its embassy here.

Pakistani officials said yesterday that any Pakistani man who had gone to fight with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and who is captured there, should be sent back to Pakistan to face legal charges. But a spokesman for the US-led coalition instead called on the Northern Alliance, which Pakistan distrusts, to take charge of detaining and disarming non-Afghan prisoners and deciding what to do with them.

Spokesman Kenton Keith told reporters in Islamabad that although the US-led coalition would respect any Northern Alliance deal that gives Afghan Taliban fighters safe passage out of Kunduz, for non-Afghan forces ''safe passage back to the countries from which they have come is not something we would like to see.''

Keith said they should be ''detained and disarmed while their future is being sorted out and negotiated,'' and that they should be registered with international monitors such as the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Pakistani and US officials stopped short of saying they disagreed on the issue. But the differing emphasis underscored a growing worry - prominent in recent days in the Pakistani press - that the United States is slackening its attention to Pakistan's interests now that the military action for which its support was crucial may be winding down.

''That we are collaborating with the Americans does not mean Pakistan and its people should be taken for a ride,'' Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmad wrote in an opinion column published yesterday in the Pakistan Observer. It called on Pakistan to protect its citizens in Afghanistan.

Pakistani journalists yesterday peppered government spokesmen with questions, citing what they said were examples of how Pakistan was being pushed around: the US ambassador to India recently labeled Kashmiri militants terrorist, though Pakistan calls them freedom fighters; the United States plans to search Pakistani ships for escaping militants; the Taliban embassy closed the day after the United States asked for its closure publicly.

Foreign ministry spokesman Aziz Ahmad Khan defended Pakistan's relationship with Washington. For one thing, he said, the ships' searches do not violate Pakistani sovereignty. Asked whether the UN is ''washing its hands'' of the situation in Afghanistan by refusing to accept prisoners, he said the UN simply doesn't have the resources to do so. And, on the issue of the embassy, Khan said the final decision was Pakistan's.

Whatever the impetus for the closing, it came yesterday with little fanfare. The embassy - a low-slung, out-of-the-way building that in the early days of US-led campaign was the scene of nearly daily news conferences by the Taliban's bespectacled ambassador - was locked, and last night the Taliban flag was taken down.

Khan said Pakistan's decision to shut the embassy had been made a day earlier and ''communicated officially to the Afghans this morning.'' Earlier, Pakistan had closed Taliban embassies in Karachi, Quetta, and Peshawar.

The United States was clearly pleased with yesteraday's closing. ''We are delighted to know that Pakistan is severing diplomatic relations with the Taliban,'' said Keith.

Taliban officials offered no immediate comment.

Meanwhile, as Northern Alliance troops closed in on the Taliban's last northern stronghold yesterday, Pakistani officials publicly and privately expressed fears of a massacre like the ones that occurred when the Northern Alliance took over cities in the early 1990s. Pakistani officials urged members of the US-led coalition and the United Nations to take a more active role to ensure the safety of the 2,000 to 10,000 foreign fighters - many of them Pakistani - believed to be in Kunduz.

Pakistan has also had ''secret contacts'' with the Northern Alliance over the issue, according to an official in the Foreign Ministry who asked to remain anonymous.

President General Pervez Musharraf raised the issue with the ICRC president in a meeting yesterday.

''The president expressed deep concern over the safety of Afghan and non-Afghan Taliban in Kunduz,'' said Khan. ''The president emphasized that the coalition, the UN, and the ICRC must do everything to ensure that these people are treated in accordance with international law and do not become victims of revenge.''

The top spokesman of Pakistan's military government, Major General Rashid Qureshi, said distinctions should be made between Pakistanis who recently crossed out of religious zeal and suspected members of the Al Qaeda terrorist network. The former could be prosecuted just for leaving the country without proper documents, he said; the latter could face more serious charges.

''I do have a sense that people are worried that if they are Pakistanis, we are going to shelter them. Not at all,'' Qureshi said in a brief interview. ''We are not going to differentiate, to say, `If they are Pakistanis they are innocent, but if they are Arabs, they are responsible.' No, we will be absolutely fair.''

Several thousand foreign troops are believed to be among the Taliban forces holed up in Kunduz, among them some of the regime's most feared fighters. They are the focus of much international attention, because of their suspected links to Al Qaeda.

There are reports they have vowed to fight to the death, even killing Afghan Taliban who have tried to surrender. But if they surrender to the Northern Alliance, there will be new concerns about whether they will find ways to slip home to their countries before being questioned - or, conversely, face summary executions by Afghans who blame them for bringing trouble to their land.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 11/23/2001.
 


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