Pakistan recognizes militant activity

The Baltimore Sun

Kabul, Afghanistan -- Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf made an unusually frank acknowledgment yesterday that Islamic militants are operating in tribal areas on his nation's side of the border with Afghanistan and providing support to insurgents fighting U.S. and NATO troops.

Musharraf's comments came in a joint appearance with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the closing session of a four-day tribal gathering in the Afghan capital, at which the neighboring nations pledged to cooperate in the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida.

The traditional council, or jirga, was planned more than a year ago during simultaneous visits to Washington by Musharraf and Karzai. The Bush administration has for months urged the two leaders to work together and tone down mutual blame-laying over militants' presence in the tribal belt that straddles their 1,500-mile border.

As recently as last month, Pakistan sharply contested U.S. intelligence claims of a well-established al-Qaida and Taliban presence in tribal areas on the Pakistani side of the border, where the central government has little or no authority.

After the release of a major U.S. intelligence report in July describing those areas as a safe haven for these groups, Pakistani officials said they had not been provided with hard evidence to back up the claims.

In his address, however, Musharraf admitted that "many of our border regions, especially the tribal areas, have been deeply affected by extremism."

"There is support from these areas to Taliban activity inside Afghanistan," he said. "There is no doubt Afghan militants are supported from Pakistani soil."

The jirga brought together about 600 tribal elders from both sides of the border. Conspicuously absent, though, were representatives from Pakistan's tribal area of North Waziristan, which has been the focal point of fighting between Pakistani security forces and insurgents.

Some of the Waziristan elders said local Taliban had threatened reprisals if they attended the gathering.

In a closing joint statement, representatives declared that "terrorism is a common threat to both countries, and the war on terror should continue to be an integral part of the national policies and security strategies of both countries."

Musharraf has been locked in confrontation with Islamic militants in the wake of government troops' assault on a radical mosque in Islamabad a month ago. More than 100 people died in the storming of the Red Mosque compound, and insurgent groups vowed to exact vengeance. An additional 250 people have been killed in subsequent attacks and fighting between insurgents and government forces.

Musharraf described Islamic extremists as a "dark" force afflicting both Afghanistan and Pakistan. "Our societies face a great danger in the shape of fringe groups, a small minority that preaches hate, violence and backwardness," he said.

Although the gathering's participants agreed on little in the way of concrete steps, Karzai declared the gathering a success.

M. Karim Faiez and Laura King write for the Los Angeles Times.

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