- The Washington Times - Friday, November 7, 2003

Taliban fighters are looking for American journalists in Afghanistan to kidnap and hold hostage to trade for prisoners, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul warned yesterday.

The embassy said it had “credible information” showing that the Taliban is looking for leverage to gain the release of Taliban militants currently in U.S. custody.

Journalists were urged to take additional precautions to increase their security.

Foreign reporters and photographers working in Afghanistan during the U.S.-led war in 2001 were sometimes singled out and killed by Taliban or tribal fighters.

But the kidnapping threat marks a new development in the continuing conflict.

“Journalists are becoming increasingly political targets,” said Tala Dowlatshahi, the U.S. representative for the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders.

“They are more often seen as promoting the agenda of their home country.”

She cited the greater accessibility of information due to the Internet and the embedding of journalists in current military actions as reasons for the increased security risks.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s interior minister warned yesterday that the al Qaeda network has stepped up activity along the Afghan-Pakistan border, opening a “second front” to divert U.S. military resources and attention from Iraq.

Ali Ahmad Jalali said some recent attacks on U.S. forces, especially in the east of the country, had been carried out by foreign al Qaeda fighters, as opposed to native Taliban militia.

Militants killed in clashes on the Afghan and Pakistan sides of the border in recent weeks included Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks and Pakistanis, a sign they were from the network of Saudi-born terrorist Osama bin Laden, whose fate remains a mystery.

“Al Qaeda, not the al Qaeda leadership that is concerned only about Afghanistan, but the whole area, the whole region, want to keep another front open in Afghanistan while they fight in Iraq in order to split the attention of the United States,” Mr. Jalali told Reuters news agency in an interview.

The Taliban was ousted from power by U.S.-led forces in late 2001 for refusing to hand over Osama bin Laden, but has been trying to regroup this year in its former southern heartlands.

U.S.-led forces in Paktika province, which borders tribal areas in Pakistan where Taliban and al Qaeda operatives are believed to be hiding, have increasingly come under attack in recent months.

In late October the U.S. Army said it had killed around 18 rebels in a six-hour firefight near Shkin.

“Most of the attackers … killed were Arabs, Chechens and Uzbeks and also Pakistanis, and they are not Taliban,” Mr. Jalali said. “They belong to al Qaeda.”

A U.N. Security Council delegation in Kabul said yesterday that security in Afghanistan will improve only if Afghans replace their loyalty to warlords with allegiance to the country’s developing political institutions.

“The country has to move from loyalty to persons — especially warlords — to loyalty to institutions,” German U.N. Ambassador Gunter Pleuger, a member of the delegation, told reporters.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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