- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 17, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan — Secretary of State Colin L. Powell praised Pakistan yesterday for stepping up efforts to crush Islamist militants in tribal areas near the Afghan border and warned that any fighters forced back into Afghanistan would face U.S. forces hunting for Osama bin Laden.

Speaking a day after a heavy battle in Pakistan’s isolated tribal areas claimed the lives of at least 15 Pakistani government paramilitary troops and 24 militants, the secretary said he will discuss that and other recent operations with Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad today.

“The action” Tuesday, Mr. Powell said, “suggests that the Pakistanis have picked up the pace and we hope they will continue to do that.”

He expressed regret for the loss of Pakistani life in the operation and said it shows “the intentions on the part of Pakistan not to allow these tribal areas to be used as a haven for the Taliban, where they can cause trouble in Afghanistan.”

Pakistani tribesmen, enraged by Tuesday’s offensive, set military vehicles ablaze yesterday in the remote village of Wana near the Afghan border, according to intelligence officials quoted in wire reports.

The tribesmen set fire to more than a dozen military vehicles — some loaded with ammunition — and two artillery guns, the Associated Press reported.

Mosque loudspeakers blared a warning from authorities that residents must leave the besieged village of Kaloosha because of the continuing violence, and many appeared to be heeding the call.

Pakistani forces have been searching for members of the ousted Taliban regime and bin Laden’s al Qaeda network in the border region for two years, but officials said the latest clash was the bloodiest to date.

About 13,500 U.S.-led forces on the Afghan side of the border also recently started a renewed effort to hunt down bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, as well as Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar.

“If Taliban elements are forced from Pakistan back into Afghanistan as a result of action on the Pakistan side of the border, I’m sure our military forces here, working with Afghan forces, will deal with those elements,” Mr. Powell told reporters after a meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

He assured Mr. Karzai that the United States remains committed to helping Afghanistan’s reconstruction and said Washington will pledge $2.2 billion towards this effort at a donors conference in Berlin later this month.

“The United States will make another significant contribution at that conference: another $1 billion on top of the $1.2 billion we have already committed,” Mr. Powell said, noting that the funds were part of a November appropriation in Congress.

Afghanistan hopes to raise $25 billion in reconstruction aid and another $3.5 billion in budget support over the next seven years.

Mr. Karzai said he hopes that both presidential and parliamentary elections will be held in the summer, but he warned that it may not be “technically” possible. He said 1.4 million voters have registered so far and more than 8 million have yet to do so.

“If that is done on time by the United Nations, the Afghan government is keen to have the election in June, July or August, depending on the preparations for elections,” Mr. Karzai said.

Mr. Powell flew to Kabul on a military C-130 aircraft from Islamabad immediately upon arrival from New Delhi on his regular plane. After about five hours on the ground, which were marked by extremely tight security, he returned to Islamabad.

His meeting with Gen. Musharraf today will be the Pakistani leader’s first in-person session with a top U.S. official since Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of the country’s nuclear program, admitted last month to running an extensive proliferation network for years.

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