Pakistan’s government will close four refugee camps near its border with Afghanistan to help prevent Afghan insurgents from gunrunning and seeking safe haven in the country, Islamabad’s ambassador to the United States said yesterday.
Mahmud Ali Durrani said the residents of two of the camps will soon be sent back to Afghanistan as part of a new program to better control the 1,550-mile shared border.
Agreement on the plan was reached Sunday with national and local leaders in what Pakistan calls the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the Baluchistan section of the country, Mr. Durrani said at a meeting with editors and reporters at The Washington Times.
“We had seen some level of activity [and so] we thought we need to strengthen our systems,” he said. “It is a porous border; it is a very difficult border.”
About 20,000 Pakistanis and Afghans cross the border in both directions every day, making it difficult to weed out insurgents who come to Pakistan for medical treatment or a respite from the fighting in Afghanistan.
The four refugee camps hold tens of thousands of the 3 million refugees in the country. Two will be closed around March and the other two later, the ambassador said, adding that arrangements would first be made to receive the refugees in Afghanistan.
In the meantime, Mr. Durrani said, his government will beef up security around the camps, a measure that he said was welcomed by most of the refugees.
Other security measures agreed to Sunday include adding to the 938 border posts strung out through the mountainous region, increasing intelligence activities and tightening central government control over parts of Baluchistan. The government will go ahead with previously announced plans to fence parts of the border.
“We have wanted to do this for a long time,” Mr. Durrani said, noting that the refugee camp closure was delayed by the United Nations because of a lack of funds, and that many refugees opposed being returned.
“But after this recent spate of criticism that has come toward Pakistan, we got fed up. We said, ‘If this is the problem, then let’s remove it.’ ”
Pakistan has about 70,000 troops in the border region and says Afghanistan’s weak central government is not doing enough to secure the border against terrorist activity. Kabul, however, accuses Pakistan of inadequate efforts to seal the border.
Army Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said in written testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last week, “Afghanistan’s relations with Pakistan are strained due to continued Taliban reliance on safe haven in Pakistan.”
Gen. Maples also said an agreement reached in September between Pakistan’s government and tribes in North Waziristan is not being honored. “Al Qaeda’s network may exploit the agreement for increased freedom of movement and operation,” the general said.
Early today, Pakistani troops destroyed three suspected al Qaeda hide-outs near the Afghan border, killing several fighters, the army said.
The military carried out the operation in the South Waziristan tribal region after receiving information that 25 to 30 al Qaeda members were hiding there, said army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan.
Mr. Durrani said Pakistan’s government has no sympathy for al Qaeda or the ousted Taliban regime. “They are our sworn enemy,” he said.
He reiterated Islamabad’s objection to statements made last week by Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte that Pakistan, while a key ally in the war on terrorism, was being used as a “secure hide-out” by al Qaeda leaders.
Mr. Negroponte’s statements “grossly exaggerated” the level of al Qaeda activity in Pakistan, Mr. Durrani said.
Asked about the U.S. debate on pulling out troops from Iraq, Mr. Durrani said any “abrupt” pullout would be “dangerous.”
“I think it would be devastating to pull out abruptly,” he said. “I think it would be equivalent to having just exploded a little bomb in Iraq and then walked away. I don’t think you can afford to do that.”
He said U.S. forces should be withdrawn over several years.
In an earlier interview, Mr. Durrani said he was angered by reports from the United Nations and NATO that Pakistan was not doing enough to stop Islamic extremists.
“I think Pakistan had done everything that is possible. If there is a genuine feeling that Pakistan has to do X, Y and Z, then we will talk it out,” he said.
Chris Alexander, the deputy U.N. representative in Afghanistan, said recently that Taliban leaders identified by the United Nations in 1999 were still active in the region, including Pakistan.
The leaders, he said in Kabul, “continue to organize, plan and carry out terrorist activities in this country and in this region.” Some of those key players “were in Pakistan for at least a part of 2006,” Mr. Alexander said.
Sharon Behn contributed to this report.