Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said it was more important to battle the remnants of Afghanistan’s former Taliban militia than chase after top Al Qaida leaders.
That Osama bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman Al Zawahri, are still at large “doesn’t mean much,” Musharraf said Tuesday in Paris while on an eight-day swing through Europe.
He suggested that those men - wanted the world over and whom he hasn’t been able to catch over the past six years - are less of a threat to his regime than the Taliban running roughshod over part of his country. Bin Laden and Al Zawahri are believed to be hiding somewhere in the lawless tribal areas along Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan.
“The 100,000 troops that we are using ... are not going around trying to locate Osama bin Laden and Zawahri, frankly,”
Musharraf told a conference at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris. “They are operating against terrorists, and in the process, if we get them, we will deal with them, certainly.”
A top US ally in its war on terrorism, Musharraf has come under increasing pressure following the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto last month and for his brief declaration of emergency rule last year.
Musharraf, who took power in a bloodless coup in 1999, insisted the remnants of the former Taliban regime of neighboring Afghanistan are the “more serious issue,” for both countries.
But he nonetheless said there was “zero per cent chance” that Al Qaida or the Taliban could defeat Pakistan’s 500,000-strong army or that militants could win control of the government in February 18 parliamentary elections.
As part of the “multi-pronged strategy” against terrorists, Pakistan has set up fences “selectively” and 1,000 checkpoints along the Afghan border in an effort to stop militants from using the areas to launch attacks, he said.
Musharraf credited cooperation between Pakistani intelligence services and the CIA, both of whom believe that militant leader Baitullah Mehsud was the mastermind of the December 27 gun and suicide attack that killed Bhutto.
But in Washington, the US State Department’s counterterrorism chief, Dell Dailey, said the Bush administration was displeased with “gaps in intelligence” from Pakistan about Al Qaida, the Taliban or foreign fighters.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who also met with Musharraf on Tuesday, expressed support for Pakistan’s fight against extremists and promised to press for increased European Union aid for the country when France takes over the rotating EU presidency in July, Sarkozy’s office said.
Musharraf played down the impact of several recent attacks in the border region of South Waziristan, calling them “pinpricks” that his government must manage - not a sign of a resurgent Taliban.
Attacks on military forts in the region over the last month have fanned concerns that militants may be gaining control in the rugged border area that US and NATO commanders say serves as the main staging area for cross-border infiltration by militants.
On Tuesday, Islamic militants attacked Lahda Fort, one of a string of outposts in South Waziristan for the second time this month. The Pakistani military said 37 militants and five soldiers were killed. In a separate clash in North Waziristan, two other soldiers were killed and seven wounded.
Despite turmoil at home, Musharraf defended his eight-day trip through four European countries, saying that he wasn’t concerned about the stability of his military-backed regime while he was away.
“I can assure you that nothing will happen in Pakistan,” he said. “We are not a banana republic.” (AP)
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