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Pakistani Tribesmen Hunt Militants Near Afghan Border - 2004-04-19


Hundreds of Pakistani tribesmen are continuing their hunt for suspected terrorists in a remote region near the Afghan border. A government deadline for tribal leaders to flush the militants out, or face military action expires on Tuesday.

The Pakistani tribesmen are hunting militants linked to the al-Qaida terror network in the mountains of the semi-autonomous border region known as South Waziristan.

A private army of about 2,000 men, locally known as "Lashkar," launched the operation on Sunday, after suspected terrorists ignored an ultimatum to surrender to tribal leaders.

The tribesmen have not yet detained any suspects, but they have demolished two houses that they say were being used by al-Qaida operatives for their activities.

The Pakistani government set April 20 as the deadline for tribal leaders to capture or kill these alleged terrorists. The government told them they faced military action, if they failed to obey.

"This 'Lashkar' [army] is all armed, and they feel confident that they will be able to get hold of these people, or in fact use weapons against them," said Mahmood Shah, the chief of security for Pakistan's tribal regions. "We feel that they will be able to do it even before 20th [April], but in case they request for any extension of the deadline, the government, I think, will consider it."

Tens-of-thousands of Pakistani troops are stationed in the tribal region, and more have been deployed in recent days, giving rise to expectations of another major military action against al-Qaida suspects and fugitive members of Afghanistan's deposed Taleban government.

Last month, Pakistan troops fought a major battle against suspected local and foreign militants in the same region. More than 100 people were killed in that fighting, including at least 50 soldiers, but a large number of suspects managed to escape.

Meanwhile, Pakistan has again rejected allegations by U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmy Khalilzad that Islamabad is not doing enough to eliminate al-Qaida and Taleban remnants on its soil.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Masood Khan says that capturing the terrorists is not only a matter for Pakistan. "There are al-Qaida operatives and some Taleban regime remnants who are on our side of the border and who are also on the Afghan side of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. It is a common problem, it is a common threat."

Pakistan has captured hundreds of al-Qaida suspects, including some key leaders, since joining the U.S.-led war against the group. Most of them were handed over to U.S. custody.

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