Hard-liners want U.S. troops out of region

Friday, January 3, 2003

PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- Hard-line Islamic groups called on the United States to pull its troops out of the region, saying Thursday that a recent clash between U.S. and Pakistani troops along the Afghan-Pakistan border exposed the dangers of the American presence.

Meanwhile, a U.S. military spokeswoman said a Pakistani border guard who apparently triggered the skirmish Sunday by shooting and wounding an American solider was detained by Pakistani authorities.

The clash inspired a new wave of anti-American rhetoric in conservative northwestern Pakistan, where hard-line politicians already were outraged over Pakistan's decision after Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to join a U.S.-led campaign to overthrow Afghanistan's Islamic Taliban rulers.

"The presence of these American forces is against the sovereignty of Pakistan. They should leave," said Zarnoor Afridi, a senior member of Jamaat-e-Islami -- a partner in the six-party religious alliance that controls the provincial government in the North West Frontier.

He said people in the tribal area don't believe the United States is sincere about wanting to mop up remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaida. American agents have occasionally staged joint raids with local police on suspected al-Qaida hide-outs in Pakistan.

'American terrorism'

He also pointed to reports -- denied by a U.S. spokesman -- that the American plane struck a religious school inside Pakistan Sunday. "This is proof of American terrorism," he said.

While not directly referring to the border clash, U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Nancy Powell said Thursday in a speech that bilateral cooperation in the fight against terrorism did not only benefit the United States.

"It is for the safety of Pakistan and United States national residents in this country as well," she said during a ceremony in the provincial capital of Peshawar to hand over equipment to Pakistani border authorities.

A U.S. military spokeswoman at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, Master Sgt. Kelly Tyler, said Thursday that the man who shot the American soldier in the head is in Pakistani custody.

The wounded American was treated at a military hospital in Germany and is in stable condition, she said from the base, the headquarters of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.

Pakistani and U.S. officials have played down the border incident, which they insist will not affect the Pakistan administration's support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

"I think it's very important that we not make this a U.S. forces-Pakistani border guard issue," Tyler said. "The U.S. and the Pakistani border guards of that area actually work very closely."

Tyler said at the time of the incident, U.S. forces were observing Pakistani border guards disarm two rockets in an area just inside the Afghan border, where they had set up a checkpoint. She said a fence separated the two groups but both were in Afghanistan. The area is in the southeastern province of Paktika.

Another Pakistani border guard -- who was not with the group disarming the rockets -- approached the American observers but was told to go away, Tyler said.

The Pakistani began leaving, but then turned and fired, grazing the head of one American soldier. The shooter then retreated into a nearby abandoned compound on the Afghan side of the border and was surrounded by the other Pakistani guards, she said.

When it was decided it would take several hours for more Pakistani soldiers to arrive, a U.S. commander called in air support and a bomb was dropped.

Accounts of precisely how the incident developed and played out have varied.

Pakistan's government said one of its border guards was involved, but no Pakistanis were wounded or killed.

Residents in the remote South Waziristan tribal area of Pakistan said Monday that U.S. bombs fell near an abandoned madrassa, or Islamic seminary, in Burmol, a border village 200 miles southwest of Peshawar. No injuries were reported.

Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Aziz Ahmad Khan declined to comment on whether the bomb hit Pakistani or Afghan territory, saying only that the investigation was ongoing and report will be issued later.

The American presence in Afghanistan has helped radicalize Pakistani politics, with the religious right sweeping recent parliamentary elections in border provinces on an anti-American platform.

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