The United States and its allies have stepped up searches along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border for terrorists they fear may launch attacks should there be war against Iraq, intelligence sources say.
The sweeps followed the March 1 arrest of al-Qaida’s third most powerful man, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, suspected of masterminding the September 11 2001 attacks.
In the hours after his arrest, a belligerent Mohammed praised al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden and warned that “America will burn if it goes into Baghdad. Americans everywhere will not be safe”, Pakistani intelligence officials said.
In a rare briefing for journalists this week, the Pakistani spy agency said Mohammed admitted meeting bin Laden last December but did not say where. A video was shown depicting the arrest of Mohammed, whose face was never shown and whose head was covered by a black hood.
An intelligence source said Mohammed was questioned at a “safe house” belonging to the Pakistani spy agency. They said his head was covered in a black hood and he spoke in English and Arabic. American interrogators were present, but Mohammed did not see them.
Since launching the stepped-up assault along the border, Pakistani sources said “we are making arrests everywhere”. They did not elaborate.
A European intelligence source said Pakistani military and paramilitary forces had staked out the tribal corridor that runs between Pakistan and Afghanistan, sweeping through rugged pockets that could provide a haven for Taliban and al-Qaida fugitives.
While the entire border is suspect, Pakistani forces are concentrating in south-western Baluchistan province between Quetta and the Iranian border. They are also focusing on the North West Frontier Province, near Balikot, 120 miles north west of the federal capital of Islamabad, and further northwest in the Chitral area, according to Pakistani intelligence officials.
Bin Laden is not the only focus of the hunt. They also are searching for other al-Qaida operatives, Taliban and loyalists of renegade Afghan rebel leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
In Afghanistan, US operatives, who have been identified by Pakistani sources as CIA special forces, are working with allies in southern and north-eastern Afghanistan.