- The Washington Times - Friday, March 20, 2009

QUETTA, PAKISTAN (AP) - Taliban leader Mullah Muhammed Omar is not in Pakistan’s southwestern Baluchistan province, a senior official said Friday, and urged the United States not to carry out missile attacks in the region.

The New York Times reported this week that U.S. officials are weighing extending missile strikes into Baluchistan in pursuit of Taliban and al-Qaida leaders who have shifted from militant strongholds farther north.

Western and Afghan officials have long suspected that Omar and other members of the Taliban government ousted by the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 have found refuge in or near the city of Quetta, Baluchistan’s capital.

Islamabad has challenged the United States to provide it with any evidence of Omar’s whereabouts, insisting Pakistani forces will immediately move against the fugitive Taliban chief.

The head of the Baluchistan provincial government insisted Friday that Mullah Omar was not there.

“A person who is making war against the NATO forces, he must be present in Afghanistan, in (the Afghan province of) Kandahar or somewhere,” Raisani said.

He said there was a distinction between Taliban militants fighting in Afghanistan and Taliban students studying peacefully in religious schools in Pakistan.

“There is no justification for drones attacks in Quetta or other parts of Baluchistan,” he said.

U.S. officials say a stepped-up program of missile strikes into Pakistan’s unpoliced tribal belt along the Afghan frontier has killed a string of top al-Qaida figures since last year.

The Obama administration has allowed the strikes, apparently carried out by unmanned aircraft operated by the CIA and is expected to announce a new strategy to pacify the region by April.

CIA Director Leon Panetta was expected in Pakistan on Friday for meetings with security and intelligence officials, Pakistani media reported. The U.S. Embassy wouldn’t say if Panetta had arrived.

Pakistan argues that the strikes are counterproductive because they kill civilians, inflame anti-Western sentiment and undermine the pro-Western government’s own efforts to neutralize extremists.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on Wednesday appeared to play down the likelihood of extending the missile strikes into Baluchistan.

Addressing concerns about Taliban activity in the Quetta area “is principally a problem and a challenge for the Pakistanis to take on” with American assistance, Gates said.

Western officials also are concerned about Baluchistan because Taliban fighters slip across its long, thinly policed border into Kandahar and Helmand provinces, where NATO troops face fierce resistance.

Militants have also eroded government control on the Pakistani side of the border, threatening NATO and U.S. supply lines into Afghanistan.

On Friday, security forces were hunting for suspected Taliban insurgents who fired rockets toward their base near the Khyber Pass in northwest Pakistan, killing 10 people.

The rockets missed the security forces’ base in Landi Kotal, but one hit the town’s commercial area, where it also injured 38, setting fire to a timber yard and destroying nearby shops, officials said.

Militants have carried out a wave of attacks on transport terminals and trucks bringing supplies along the main supply route for foreign forces in Afghanistan. Pakistani security forces have undertaken several operations to push militants back from the road and the main northwestern city of Peshawar.

U.S. and NATO officials insist the militant attacks have little impact on their operations but are looking at ways to bring more supplies into Afghanistan through Central Asia.

There are concerns that recent political turmoil in Pakistan will distract the government, which depends heavily on U.S. and other Western aid, from its battle against al-Qaida and Taliban militants.

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