Elders hand over al-Qaida helpers

Pakistani tribesmen in the mountainous region bordering Afghanistan have handed over dozens of people suspected of sheltering al-Qaida fighters, an official said.

    The Pakistan government sought people in border regions

    Threatened by the prospect of a large-scale Pakistan military offensive to seize the suspects, tribal elders

    bowed to pressure and presented authorities with al-Qaida sympathisers on Monday.

    "About 60% of those linked to al-Qaida or working as facilitators have been handed over to the local

    authorities," the official said.

    The official did not say how many suspects had been detained, but security sources earlier said authorities were

    looking for about 90 people accused of offering shelter to al-Qaida and Taliban fugitives in the mountainous

    South Waziristan area along the Afghan border.

    Afghan officials suspect tribesmen in South Waziristan provide sanctuary to militants involved in attacks

    against the US-led coalition and Afghan forces in the provinces of Khost, Paktia and Paktika.

    Deadline over

    The tribal elders handed over the accused over the past few days following a 20 February deadline given by the g

    overnment last week.

    The government earlier deployed thousands of troops for an operation into the area if tribal elders failed to

    hand over the suspects and those protecting them.

    However, Information Minister Shaikh Rashid said on Monday that "no offensive has been launched so far".

    "Troops have been deployed in the area to plug the entry of undesired elements," Rashid said.

    No sign of Bin Ladin

    "This step is part of Pakistan's commitment to the international

    community against terrorism"

    Shaikh Rashid,
    Information Minister

    The minister on Sunday dismissed suggestions that beefing up of troops followed reports that al-Qaida chief Usama bin Ladin and his close associates had been spotted in the area.

    "This step is not any individual specific but it is a part of Pakistan's commitment to the international

    community against terrorism."

    The US military last week said an operation was being prepared on both sides of the border.

    "We're moving in the direction of cooperative operations on both sides of the border - a hammer and anvil

    approach if you will," said Lt Gen David Barno, commander of the coalition forces in Afghanistan.

    Pakistani military officials said troops would conduct an operation whenever there was a requirement to do so.

    "There has never been and there would never be any involvement of foreign troops in any operation on our side

    of the border," military spokesman Maj Gen Shaukat Sultan said on Sunday.

    Border security

    Tens of thousands of Pakistani troops have been deployed along the porous 1600km border for the past two years

    and the country has arrested more than 500 al-Qaida and Taliban suspects.

    President Pervez Musharraf recently warned foreign militants hiding in the tribal belt to surrender or face the


    Pakistani troops killed eight al-Qaida suspects and arrested 18 others in a major operation launched in South

    Waziristan in October.

    The authorities have warned that those sheltering the suspects will be sentenced to seven years in jail and

    fined $26,300.



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