- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 26, 2002

From combined dispatches

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan Pakistani security agencies, working with FBI agents, are questioning about a dozen militants to determine who delivered a taped message said to be from Osama bin Laden to an Arab television station's Islamabad office, officials said yesterday.

"We are tracking down the footprints of those who are working for terrorists," a senior Interior Ministry official told the Associated Press.

"We are on the right track, and this is all that I can say at this stage," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The official declined to say how many militants were in custody, or where they were detained.

But another intelligence official told AP that the security services are questioning about a dozen people with links to al Qaeda and Afghanistan's Taliban.

Despite the investigation at the federal level, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), the militant Islamist bloc that controls the two Pakistani provinces bordering Afghanistan, says U.S. involvement in the effort to hunt for al Qaeda and Taliban operatives is not welcome.

The provincial assembly of the Northwest Frontier Province, where the anti-American bloc of Muslim extremists has an outright majority, was recently sworn in.

The MMA posted huge gains in an October election by tapping anti-U.S. sentiment, especially in areas near the Afghan border.

That region is where American troops are hunting for Taliban and al Qaeda fighters.

The MMA's gains raised concern in the West that the six-party alliance, which includes fiery pro-Taliban clerics, could undermine Islamabad's support for the U.S.-led war against terrorism in Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan.

The MMA, likely to formally take power in the province next week, has vowed to push through a strict Islamic social agenda that could affect education, particularly of girls, the dress code and media access.

In Islamabad, Foreign Ministry spokesman Aziz Ahmed Khan said he was not aware of any operation or arrests made in connection with the purported bin Laden tape.

The efforts to trace bin Laden associates in Pakistan began soon after a someone delivered the tape to a reporter from the Al Jazeera television station in Islamabad.

Al Jazeera aired the audiotape in which someone, said to be bin Laden, praised the October terrorist strikes in Bali and Moscow and warned U.S. allies not to attack Iraq. Authorities in the United States believe it was bin Laden's voice and that the recording was recent.

Ahmad Muaffaq Zaidan, the Al Jazeera reporter who received the tape, told AP yesterday that he received the tape from a man in disguise.

"On November 12, I received a call from a person who wanted to meet me urgently. … I went to the specified place where a person gave me a cassette, saying, 'This is Osama bin Laden's message,'" Mr. Zaidan said.

He said the man's face was covered and that he did not get a good look at the messenger.

The militants being questioned were detained in the southern port city of Karachi and in Lahore, in the east, according to intelligence sources.

In September, U.S. and Pakistani authorities captured Ramzi Binalshibh, believed to be a planner of the September 11 attacks, in Karachi. In March, al Qaeda financier Abu Zubaydah was arrested in the Pakistani city of Faisalabad.

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