Monday, May 18, 2009

KARACHI, Pakistan — Taliban fighters seeking money, rest and refuge from U.S. missile strikes are turning up in increasing numbers in Pakistan’s largest city and economic hub, Karachi, according to militants, police officials and an intelligence memo.

The Taliban presence in this southern port city, hundreds of miles away from the Islamist organization’s strongholds in the northwest, shows how quickly its influence is spreading throughout the nuclear-armed nation.

Karachi is especially important because it is the main entryway for supplies headed to U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, as well as the most critical city to Pakistani commerce. Few think the Taliban could actually take over this diverse metropolis of more than 12 million, but there is fear that it could destabilize it through violence and rock the already shaky national economy.

Karachi is a place where plenty of Western-dressed young men and women mingle in swanky malls, listen to Britney Spears and cruise through neighborhoods that feel like wealthy U.S. suburbs.

But it is also where U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and found beheaded in 2002. Al Qaeda operatives including Sept. 11 attack planner Ramzi Binalshibh have been found here. And the city is thought to have been a launching pad for militants who killed 164 people in India’s commercial capital of Mumbai last year.

As the Pakistan military intensifies its attacks in the northwest and the U.S. keeps launching missiles there, more insurgents are seeking safety in Karachi and other urban areas, militants said.

“We come in different batches to Karachi to rest and if needed, get medical treatment, and stay with many of our brothers who are living here in large numbers,” militant Omar Gul Mehsud, 32, told the Associated Press while strolling along the beach, astonished at the vastness of the sea, which he’d never seen before.

Shah Jahan, 35, who said he commands about 24 Taliban fighters in the South Waziristan tribal region, told the AP that militants are scattering throughout Pakistan to avoid the U.S. missile strikes. He said groups of 20 to 25 fighters would fight for a few months, then take leave of up to one month in cities including Karachi.

“We are more alert and cautious following the drone attacks, and we understand that it is not a wise approach to concentrate in a large number in the war-torn areas,” he said.

On the outskirts of Karachi, large settlements of Afghan and Pakistani refugees have swelled over the past year by as many as 200,000 people. These refugees are mostly Pashtun, the ethnic group that dominates the militancy. An intelligence report obtained by the AP warns that such neighborhoods have become favored hideouts for militants linked to Baitullah Mehsud, Pakistan’s top Taliban commander.

The report says those militants are arriving in batches of 20 to 25 every 30 to 35 days “for rest as well as for generating funds.” It adds that the militants make money “through criminal activities like kidnapping for ransom, bank robbery, street robbery and other heinous crimes.”

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