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Pakistan Extends Qaeda Deadline

Pakistani tribesmen, armed with rifles and light weapons, attend jirga, or grand meeting, in Wana, the capital of Pakistan's tribal area South Waziristan on Sunday, April 18, 2004. A 2,000-strong tribal militia armed with assault rifles, heavy guns and grenade launchers began a hunt Sunday for al-Qaida supporters believed hiding near the Afghan border, a tribesman and an official said. (AP Photo/Ahsanullah Wazir)
AP
Anxious to avoid a bloody military operation, Pakistan's government indicated Monday it was ready to extend a deadline for tribesmen to evict al Qaeda supporters from rugged terrain near the Afghan border, saying it believes a 2,000-strong tribal militia is sincere in its effort to track down the suspects.

The militia, armed with assault rifles and grenade launchers, has fanned out through mud-brick villages in South Waziristan, where Pakistan's army last month conducted its biggest counterterrorism sweep since President Gen. Pervez Musharraf joined the U.S.-led war on terrorism in late 2001.

The militiamen have made no arrests in the past two days, but have destroyed the homes of two men accused of harboring foreign militants — apparently enough to persuade authorities they are serious in evicting fugitives from their homeland.

The government had threatened more military action if tribesmen failed to hand over five local men accused of harboring foreign militants by Tuesday.

Syed Iftikhar Hussain Shah, governor of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, said the lashkar, or tribal force, had the support of the local Yargul Khel tribe, and the government was willing to "give them more time" if they deliver. He also repeated an offer of amnesty to foreign militants if they surrender.

"We will watch the situation for two or three days," Shah told a news conference in provincial capital Peshawar. "We don't want bloodshed. If there can be a peaceful solution of this problem we will prefer that."

The March operation left more than 120 people dead, including at least 48 soldiers, 63 militants and some civilians. It also angered inhabitants of South Waziristan, who have lived largely independent of central government control for decades.

The remote tribal regions are believed to be possible hideouts for fugitives including al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri. Al-Zawahri was reported to be cornered during the Pakistani offensive last month, but none of the 160 foreign and local militants arrested then turned out to be senior al Qaeda figures.

Pakistan Foreign Ministry spokesman Masood Khan on Monday issued a stinging rebuke against U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, who in the past week has twice criticized Pakistan for failing to stop cross-border infiltration by al Qaeda and Taliban rebels into Afghanistan.

Khalilzad continues to provide "a sanctuary" for al Qaeda and the Taliban.

"We all want Pakistan to deal with the problem," he was quoted as saying in Pakistani media. "The problem has not been solved and needs to be solved, the sooner the better."

Khan said that "Pakistan is doing more than enough" to check activities of terrorists, and said Islamabad would protest the ambassador's comments to Washington.

Khalilzad also said the American military — which leads more than 13,000 troops hunting al Qaeda and Taliban holdouts in Afghanistan — would move forces into Pakistan if it failed to oust the terrorists.

Pakistan's government, which has enraged religious hard-liners with its support of America's war on terrorism since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, has repeatedly ruled out such a move.

"It is strange that he (Khalilzad) is working hard to create misunderstanding between the United States and Pakistan. He is new to the job and diplomacy but while in Afghanistan is not expected to make statements that impinge on Pakistan-U.S. relations," Khan said.

Meanwhile, in the Afghan capital, Kabul, Afghan police and international peacekeepers arrested eight terrorist suspects and seized weapons and explosives before dawn Monday — the second such raid in little more than a week.

Cdr. Chris Henderson, a spokesman for the NATO-led peacekeepers, said they had averted an "imminent threat to security" in Afghanistan.

Henderson would not reveal the names or nationalities of any of those arrested, but said the men had suspected links to al Qaeda and one was a senior member of renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami group.

On April 13, six men, including one described as a senior Hekmatyar commander, were arrested by Afghan and international forces in the capital. Their identities have also not been revealed.

Hekmatyar is believed to have teamed up with Taliban holdouts and al Qaeda militants in frequent attacks on the coalition and the U.S.-backed Afghan government, particularly in the south and east of the country, often near the long and porous border with Pakistan.

Over the weekend, insurgent attacks killed ten Afghan soldiers and nine militants.

The violence has cast a shadow over plans for presidential and parliamentary elections in September, seen as key to Afghanistan's rehabilitation after two decades of war. To improve security, NATO is promising to expand its peacekeeping operations beyond Kabul and coalition forces have stepped up their campaign against the rebels.

Also Monday, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees said he hoped the repatriation of some 3.5 million Afghan refugees would be largely complete by 2006, but conceded that many would remain in Pakistan and other countries they had fled to.

About 3 million Afghan refugees have returned since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, with the largest number — about 2.1 million — from neighboring Pakistan, Ruud Lubbers said.

But more than 3 million remain abroad, many in squalid refugees camps, including in Iran.