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Saturday, March 03, 2007

Pakistan braces for Taliban backlash after arrest

ISLAMABAD, March 3 (Reuters) - Pakistan was braced on Saturday for reprisals from militants after the capture of one of the Taliban's three most senior leaders earlier this week.

The arrest of Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, a member of Taliban supremo Mullah Mohammad Omar's inner circle, was disclosed to Reuters by several security officials, though it has not been confirmed by Pakistani authorities.

Akhund's capture on Monday in Quetta, the capital of southwest Baluchistan province, was the first arrest of a high-ranking Taliban officer since the Islamist militia were driven out of Afghanistan in late 2001 by U.S.-backed forces.

The timing of the arrest, just hours after an unannounced visit by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and a senior CIA officer, is awkward for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, as he does not want to be seen to be acting under pressure given the extent of anti-American sentiment in the country.

Reports of Akhund's arrest in the Pakistani media, with the exception of the Dawn newspaper, have been scanty.

One of the reason why the authorities are staying quiet is fear of a backlash from militants and Islamist political parties opposed to Musharraf, according to officials.

"It could lead to security problems, as Taliban present in the country could react," said a security officer in Baluchistan.


The other reason for withholding the news was to buy time for interrogators to extract information, officials said.

"Disclosing the arrest could jeopardise an ongoing investigation and allow other Taliban figures to escape," the security officer said.

The country has been in the grip of a security scare for the past few months, as jihadi groups sympathetic to al Qaeda and the Taliban have carried out a series of suicide and bomb attacks in cities around the country.

On Friday, an anti-terrorism court judge was wounded when a bomb detonated by remote control exploded as his car passed over a flyover in the central city of Punjab, but three policemen in his escort were killed.

At least five more suspected Taliban were arrested from hotels in Quetta mid-week, though they have not been identified, other security sources said.

Another 22 Afghan nationals were arrested at small hotels in the city, but it was not known if they were targeted Taliban suspects, or merely Afghans without proper identity papers.

Police in Baluchistan have carried out sweeps for a number of months, sending home hundreds of Afghans without valid documents, but many of those repatriated have told Reuters that they simply return to Pakistan as they have homes and work there.

Akhund's arrest came as the Bush administration faces a wave of scepticism over Pakistan's role as an ally in the war on terrorism.

Cheney during his visit last weekend asked Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to do more to stop al Qaeda from rebuilding its infrastructure in safe havens in Pakistani tribal lands and step up efforts to thwart a spring offensive by the Taliban against Afghan and NATO troops.
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