Pakistan's decision to withdraw military troops from a key northern region at the center of the U.S.-backed war on terror does not indicate a change its commitment to hunt down Osama bin Laden, according a senior Pakistani army spokesman.
Major General Shaukat Sultan strongly refuted on Wednesday an earlier report on ABC which quoted him as saying that bin Laden "would not be taken into custody in Pakistan," as long as he lived as a peaceful citizen in the country.
The news appeared to suggest that the al Qaeda leader could be given breathing space from an agreement struck Tuesday between the U.S.-allied government of General Pervez Musharraf and local tribal leaders in the country's northern Waziristan region, close to the Afghan border.
The agreement was followed by Pakistani military troops vacating roadside checkpoints that had been set up as part of an intense search for bin Laden and his followers in the region.
"Pakistan is committed to the war on terror. Our commitment on Osama bin Laden hasn't changed," said Sultan. "It's totally fabricated," he said, referring to the alleged remarks reported by ABC.
Western diplomats in Islamabad said the agreement does permit non-Pakistani nationals to living in the mountainous region to stay in the area, a change from previous policy, but they added that this does not include individuals who appear on Washington's list of suspects.
"This agreement does not cover the most wanted suspects. It's meant to lure foot soldiers who have never been involved in militancy outside the Pak-Afghan region to lay down their arms," said one senior western diplomat who spoke on the condition that his name would not be revealed. "Those excluded are essentially those who appear on the (FBI) most-wanted list," he added.
Pakistani officials said the withdrawal of troops from checkpoints does not mean that the military would be completely abandoning the border region with Afghanistan, known as the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA). The checkpoint withdrawal came after more than a year of criticism from tribal chiefs in the FATA about the alleged violation of their peoples' rights by the federal government.
Military troops will remain close enough to the region "to be deployed back if needed, but for now the military will be out of active duties in the region," said a senior Pakistani government official who also asked not to be named.
Western diplomats had estimated the previous level of Pakistani military deployments along the Afghan border at between 60,000 and 80,000 troops, armed with U.S.-supplied military equipment including helicopters, communication hardware and ammunition.