/ 8 August 2007

Musharraf pulls out of anti-terror meet

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf on Wednesday cancelled a trip to Afghanistan to attend a key anti-terrorism meeting, citing a previous engagement amid heightened security concerns.

On the eve of a high-profile meeting of leaders from volatile regions bordering the two countries, Musharraf telephoned Afghan President Hamid Karzai to tell him that he would not attend, the Foreign Ministry said.

The Pakistani president would send Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz in his place, it said in a statement.

”The president assured the Afghan president of Pakistan’s full support in making the joint peace jirga a success,” the statement said.

”The president mentioned to President Karzai that because of his engagements in the capital, he could not personally attend,” it said.

Musharraf’s no-show comes despite the fact that the council, or jirga, was brokered by United States President George Bush in a meeting with the Afghan and Pakistani leaders in Washington last September.

”We believe the absence of President Musharraf, who is busy at home, won’t effect the jirga,” Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesperson Sultan Ahmad Baheen told Agence France-Presse (AFP) in Kabul.

Despite the official explanation for Musharraf’s withdrawal, a senior government source told AFP that security concerns were behind the decision.

”The decision has been taken due to security concerns for the president,” said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity and declining to elaborate.

The military leader has survived a number of assassination attempts.

The jirga, which aims to bring together tribal leaders from the troubled mountain region bordering the two countries — believed to be a haven for Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives — has been billed as an opportunity for them to thrash out an anti-terrorism strategy.

Both Musharraf and Karzai were due to attend the meeting, although leaders of two of Pakistan’s seven tribal regions, restive North and South Waziristan, have already announced a boycott.

Musharraf’s absence was calculated to send a strong message to his US allies, according to a Pakistani analyst.

”This sudden development only goes to show how things have got worse between the allies in the war on terror,” defence analyst Talat Masood said.

”Musharraf is also trying to convey a very strong message that he is very unhappy with what the Bush administration and other presidential hopefuls have been saying about the role of Pakistan,” he said.

”This should win him domestic support.”

Masood said the boycott by elders from North and South Waziristan ”could also be a contributing factor and give a clear indication that the results would not be encouraging”.

Musharraf has been under intensifying pressure to tackle militancy in the tribal regions, and has been angered by accusations from Washington that Pakistan has become a safe haven for al-Qaeda and a regrouped Taliban.

Karzai has also repeatedly stated that much of the violence that has dogged Afghanistan has been planned and carried out by Taliban militia based on the Pakistan side of their shared border.

The jirga, due to be attended by about 700 tribal representatives, had been organised amid great fanfare and hopes that the elders would be able to use their influence to quell escalating terrorist activities.

Violence in Pakistan’s tribal region has spiked since the collapse of a peace deal between pro-Taliban militants and government forces deployed there since 2002 to hunt down al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Pakistan’s military said on Wednesday it killed at least 12 militants in a major raid near the Afghan border using helicopter gunships and mortars in Miranshah, the main town in North Waziristan.

A local intelligence officer said the hide-out was used by al-Qaeda operatives.

The US describes the region as a safe haven for terrorists and has pressured Islamabad to deal with what it says is a festering threat. US officials and presidential candidates have threatened unilateral air strikes on Pakistani territory to root them out.

This prompted a stern response from Musharraf, who Tuesday reiterated his opposition to any US counter-terror action inside Pakistani territory. — AFP