- The Washington Times - Monday, August 12, 2002

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan Federal officials acknowledge that al Qaeda operatives fleeing Afghanistan have been able to pass through Pakistan on their way to their homelands, and a newspaper says hundreds have gone underground in Pakistani cities.

It is not clear whether any are directly connected to a wave of attacks on Westerners including two incidents aimed at Christians last week but authorities believe the perpetrators are at least loosely connected to al Qaeda.

Many members of Osama bin Laden's Afghanistan-based terror network are believed to have crossed the border into Pakistan's rugged tribal areas in the face of U.S.-led attacks late last year.

Despite Pakistani efforts to seal off the border, some of these fugitives have made their way deeper into Pakistan with the help of local sympathizers, and even have reached seaports for the voyage to their homes, mainly in the Middle East, according to Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider.

"We are mindful of people sometimes leaving by boat," said Mr. Haider, a retired army general who heads Pakistan's civilian security forces, in an interview.

The Independent, a Lahore-based weekly newspaper, recently reported that Pakistani sympathizers helped an estimated 200 al Qaeda activists make their way to Karachi, the nation's largest city, where they were taken to safe houses in the city's suburbs.

The newspaper quoted an unnamed police source as saying, "Many al Qaeda people were received with bullet wounds at some private hospitals and were looked after by supporters and sympathizers."

They keep changing their addresses to escape arrest, amid manhunts carried out jointly by Pakistan's military Inter-Services Intelligence and the FBI, the newspaper said.

It said many escaped by boarding boats at small ports such as Port Qasim, or by taking bumpy bus rides through the Baluchistan desert to Mand, near the Iranian border.

From Iran, it is a short hop by dhow or launch, using ports such as Bandar Abbas or Chabahar, to get to Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Haider acknowledged that some al Qaeda fighters "did manage to come through" the border with the help of tribal supporters "who were with them in Afghanistan."

But he noted that Pakistan's security agencies were able to track down many of them in places such as Lahore, Faisalabad and the tribal areas.

Pakistani police and intelligence agencies scored their biggest success on March 28 when they captured bin Laden's top field commander, Abu Zubaydah, with help from the United States.

Mr. Haider said security forces had stepped up surveillance in coastal areas in recent months to prevent seaborne escapes. U.S. warships have also been patrolling the coast since the war on terrorism began last fall.

The minister said there had been no reports of al Qaeda members escaping by sea "in large numbers." Authorities "are very alert on the other side, also," he said, referring to immigration police in ports such as Muscat, Oman, and Abu Dhabi, U.A.E., to which the stragglers were believed to be heading.

Police and intelligence officials got a wealth of information from Zubaydah and others arrested with him and from other al Qaeda suspects captured in Karachi, but often too late to prevent others from escaping.

Police have been able to learn that many al Qaeda men got away on regular flights from Karachi airport by using fake travel documents, or on regular shipping lines by bribing ship captains in Karachi harbor.

There was no suggestion that bin Laden was among those who managed to escape.

Making the work of the police and intelligence agencies more difficult is the fact that the Karachi City Council is dominated by Islamic fundamentalists from parties such as the Jamaat-e-Islami, many of whom are known to be bin Laden sympathizers. Some are rich enough to own posh houses in the Karachi suburbs, and are able to keep al Qaeda activists hidden for months.

Police now fear that the presence of so many al Qaeda activists and supporters in the city has made Karachi a nest of terrorist cells.

The city has been the scene of three terrorist events since October, including the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in January.

There was also a car bomb explosion that killed 11 French technicians and four Pakistanis in March, and a car bomb blast that killed 12 Pakistanis outside the U.S. Consulate in June.

Investigators were quoted yesterday saying two attacks on Christians in northern Pakistan last week are most likely the work of Jaish-e-Mohammed, an indigenous Pakistani group that supports al Qaeda and has been banned by President Pervez Musharraf.

An intelligence official told the Associated Press that authorities believe at least two out of five extremist groups outlawed by Mr. Musharraf have links to al Qaeda.

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