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South Asia: Captured Taliban Fuels Islamabad-Kabul Fire

January 18, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A captured Taliban spokesman, known as Mohammad Hanif, has claimed that the leader of Afghanistan's former Taliban regime is living in Pakistan under the protection of that country's intelligence service.

Pakistani officials quickly rejected the claims about Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, and the questioned the circumstances of its disclosure.

Whether or not these and other allegations by Hanif prove true, they have highlighted tensions between Islamabad and Kabul.

Afghan authorities say they have identified the Taliban spokesman, known to journalists as Mohammad Hanif or "Dr. Hanif," as Abdul Hagh Haji Gulroz. They say he is a 26-year-old Afghan national from Nangarhar Province, which abuts Pakistan.

Quick Disclosure

Video snippets of his interrogation emerged on January 17, one day after he was reported captured when he crossed the border from Pakistan into Afghanistan.

In the video, Hanif is wearing a gray sweater and sitting in a dimly lit room. He is speaking in a soft voice.

He claims, among other things, that Mullah Omar lives in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta and is being protected by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.

Hanif makes another, potentially even more inflammatory claim, saying a former head of Pakistani intelligence -- former ISI Director General Hamid Gul -- organizes and trains Taliban fighters to carry out terrorist missions inside Afghanistan.

Afghan authorities say Hanif told them that insurgents are being trained in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, which lies in tribal areas on the traditional route between Kabul and Islamabad.

"In his confessions, [Hanif] mentioned a main training center for suicide bombers -- and that is the Hashemieh madrasah in Pakistan's Peshawar," Saeed Ansari, a spokesman for Afghan Intelligence Department, told reporters on January 17. "He said that [misleading] videotapes are shown to young people there. In that school, young people are being brainwashed so that they get involved in suicide missions and fight against the government of Afghanistan and coalition forces."

'All Lies'

Pakistani officials have rejected each of those allegations as "absurd and ridiculous." They counter that the claims appear to have been made "under coercion." They also say Afghan authorities should provide more information about the circumstances of the arrest.

Pakistani Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao on January 18 called the allegation "baseless," saying that Pakistani authorities do not know the location of Mullah Omar.

Sherpao told AP that Afghan intelligence officials have issued contradictory statements since the arrest of Hanif -- whom he described as "the so-called Taliban spokesman." Sherpao stressed that Pakistani officials "don't know who this person [in the video] is or where we was arrested."

Gul, the former head of Pakistan's ISI, told RFE/RL today that the claims were untrue.

"These are all lies," Gul said. "It is to defame Pakistan. It is clear from [Afghan officials'] intentions. It shows what they want for the future of Pakistan."

Caught Near Border

Afghan authorities announced that Hanif was captured along with two traveling companions on January 15 after crossing the border from Pakistan.

The announcement came as U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was in Afghanistan to talk with Afghan President Hamid Karzai about ways to stop resurgent militants, who generally launch spring offensives once the heavy snows have melted.

The bloody insurgency mounted a record number of attacks in 2006 that left hundreds of people dead.

Gates has warned that the threat posed by Taliban insurgents could increase in 2007.

Afghan officials have repeatedly accused Pakistan of doing too little to stop insurgents from crossing the border, and of failing to close down terrorist sanctuaries. They say insurgents have found a haven on the Pakistani side of the border.

During his visit to Kabul, Gates described Pakistan as an "extraordinarily strong ally" of the United Sates. But he noted that militant attacks across the border are increasing.

"Pakistan has been an extraordinarily strong ally of the United State in the war on terror," Gates said. "And the border area is a problem, that there are more attacks coming across the border, that there are Al-Qaeda networks operating on the Pakistani side of the border, and these are issues that we clearly will have to pursue with the Pakistani government."

Observers say the apparent arrest of the Taliban spokesman -- and his claims of Pakistani support for the insurgency -- could further strain relations with Afghanistan.

Replacement Announced

Hanif had used e-mails and telephone calls to provide the media with information about Taliban activities since 2005.

He was said to have been appointed Taliban spokesman in 2005, following the arrest of chief Taliban spokesman Latifullah Hakimi. Hakimi was arrested in the southwestern city of Quetta in Pakistan, where Hanif now says Mullah Omar is living under the protection of the ISI.

News agencies report that another purported Taliban spokesman, known as Qari Yousef Ahmadi, has already confirmed Hanif's arrest. He reportedly said the Taliban's "leadership council" has already appointed a new spokesman, Zadiollah Mujahid.

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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