U.S. Troops On Patrol In Pakistan

Vladimir Putin ordering billionaire Oleg Deripaska to sign an agreement that would enable the town's enterprises to resume operation. NTV

U.S. soldiers are operating with Pakistani troops in the hunt for al Qaeda fugitives in the rugged area on the Afghan border, but Pakistan's president said in comments published Monday that the American force is small.

Meanwhile, Turkey officially agreed to take over from Britain the command of the peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan for six months, the government said. The announcement, which came after a Cabinet meeting, did not say when Turkey would take command of the force.

"The date of command transfer will be decided in talks with the countries concerned and the United Nations," a cabinet statement said.

President Pervez Musharraf's comments followed sightings of U.S. personnel by tribesmen and religious leaders in the area, as well as word from American and Pakistani officials last week that a joint hunt for followers of Osama bin Laden was under way in the region.

"Americans, not even in double figures, are with us," Musharraf was quoted as saying by The Nation and other national dailies at a meeting with editors in the southern port city of Karachi. "They are communications experts and are ensuring links between our forces and the U.S. forces cooperating in Afghanistan."

Tribal areas lie west of the capital, Islamabad, just on the Pakistan side of the border with Afghanistan's Paktia and Paktika provinces, where U.S. and allied forces have been stepping up their hunt for Taliban and al Qaeda hiding in the remote, mountainous region.

The border area is a traditional stronghold for bin Laden, the Saudi exile who heads al Qaeda, and his followers fleeing the U.S.-led anti-terror campaign in Afghanistan. The Pakistani army usually treads lightly in the tribal regions on its side of the border.

The reports of U.S. forces chasing al Qaeda inside Pakistan bolsters critics who accuse Musharraf of being too cozy with Washington because of his strong backing of the anti-terror campaign.

Seeking to mollify critics, Musharraf said the Americans were not in a combat role.

"There are some officials for communication purposes, but they are not fighting," he said.

Turkey already has 267 troops in Kabul as part of the force. The statement said that contingent would increase but did not specify by how much.

Earlier this month, British officials said they did not believe that a handover would take place before June.

Turkey, a NATO member, was the first Muslim country to contribute troops to the mission. Turkey has said that it would enlarge its force to about 1,000 troops if it assumes command.

Britain has led the 4,500-member, 18-nation security force since the Security Council established it in late December and had wanted to hand over command in April.

Turkey earlier offered to take over command of the force, but was concerned that sending a large Turkish force would be too costly for a country that is facing a difficult economic crisis.

Turkey also insisted that the United States provide cargo planes and that Britain leave behind some of the facilities it set up for the peacekeepers.

Bitter feuding this weekend among warlords turned eastern Afghanistan into a war zone, leaving as many as 25 people dead and furious residents accusing the interim regime of being weak, and the United States of being uncaring.

Some say they are even praying for a return of the Taliban, whose heavy-handed rule sent most of the country's warlords into exile.

On Sunday, residents in Gardez began to emerge from shuttered dwellings to bury their dead killed in the previous day's rocket assault.

As many as 25 people died when soldiers loyal to warlord Bacha Khan Zardran fired a torrent of rockets into the city on Saturday, said Gardez governor Taj Mohammed Wardak. Another 70 people were injured.

From their heavily guarded compound on the southern edge of the city, U.S. Special Forces brought blood and medicine to the hospital to help treat the wounded, Irfan said.

But people say it's not enough.

They want the special forces to use their military might to rein in the warlords. They say the U.S. response is quick and forceful when they are threatened, but less so when residents come under fire.

"When one mortar is fired near the compound where the U.S. soldiers are there are 20 planes in the sky right away, but when 800 rockets fall on the people of Gardez nothing," said Moukan, a shopkeeper who uses only one name.

The U.S. military spokesman said Sunday that the U.S. forces deployed in Afghanistan are quietly doing what they can to halt factional fighting in the east of the country, but negotiating an end to local feuds is not their primary objective.

"Our mission here is to capture or kill al Qaeda and senior Taliban," said Maj. Bryan Hilferty, the U.S. military spokesman. "Our secondary mission is to help to secure the country."

Hilferty said recent clashes between rival warlords in the east posed a threat to the country's fragile interim government, but halting fighting between warlords was largely the responsibility of the new authorities.

"Of course we are working with the Afghan interim administration to help them with security, to help them set up the Afghan army. But particular factional fighting? I don't think it's for us to get into," said Hilferty.
  • Lloyd Vries

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