/ 30 October 2009

Clinton hits out at Pakistan’s al-Qaeda silence

United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hit out on Friday against Pakistan’s silence on the whereabouts of al-Qaeda leaders, wrapping up a goodwill visit cautiously welcomed despite lingering distrust.

As rescue workers searched for more bodies in the wreckage of one of the country’s biggest bomb attacks, which slaughtered 118 people on Wednesday, Clinton said Pakistan would never escape terror without disposing of al-Qaeda.

”We don’t know where and I have no information that they know where but this is a big government. You know, it’s a government on many levels. Somebody, somewhere in Pakistan must know where these people are,” she said.

”And we’d like to know because we view them as really at the core of the terrorist threat that threatens Pakistan, threatens Afghanistan, threatens us, threatens people all over the world,” Clinton told radio journalists.

”I think it is absolutely clear and I am convinced that you will never rid Pakistan of the threat of terrorism unless you rid it of al-Qaeda.”

One day earlier she appeared to lose patience during a face-to-face meeting with senior editors, taking issue with Pakistan’s official line doubting that Osama bin Laden and his senior lieutenants are in Pakistan.

”I find it hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they are and couldn’t get them if they really wanted to,” she had said.

Wednesday’s bomb attack, which overshadowed Clinton’s visit, underscored the gravity of Islamist attacks that have killed about 2 400 people in two years and are seen as part of a backlash against the government’s alliance with the US.

Clinton has focused on trying to strengthen the civilian government and counter rising public anti-Americanism, but has been frustrated by fears in Pakistan that a $7,5-billion non-military US aid Bill violates Pakistan’s sovereignty.

Hers is the most senior American visit here since US President Barack Obama put the nuclear-armed Muslim state at the heart of the fight against al-Qaeda and made the war in Afghanistan a top priority.

She sought to reach out to Pakistani students and media, which is frequently highly critical of the United States, while also visiting religious sites and pledging shoulder-to-shoulder support.

Analysts said differences between Washington and Islamabad on al-Qaeda would continue, but praised her on-message diplomacy and respect for Islamic custom by covering her hair, visiting a mosque and handing out alms.

”It will dilute the criticism if not eliminate the opposition. She communicated openly and admitted there were differences,” political analyst Hasan Askari said.

”Her emphasis was to work for social development in addition to military assistance. She did it successfully to leave a good impact and reduce negative sentiments in public,” he added.

Clinton endorsed a major Pakistan offensive against Taliban sanctuaries in South Waziristan, part of the tribal district on the Afghan border where US officials accuse al-Qaeda of plotting attacks on the West.

The army said troops were closing in on Kanigurram, described as a base of Uzbek militants and a Tehreek-e-Taliban operational centre, despite concern from rights groups of a ”catastrophe” unless aid reaches trapped civilians.

The military announced on Friday that 14 militants were killed during the battle to secure an important ridge less than 4km from the Taliban bastion of Sararogha. Two soldiers were also killed, it said.

The body count, meanwhile, rose further from Wednesday’s huge car bomb that devastated a crowded market in Peshawar.

The remains of a child were lifted out of the wreckage on Friday, pushing the total number of children dead after the attack to 24, along with 31 women.

Fire destroyed about half a dozen buildings and rescue teams are still working to remove the debris in the narrow streets around the market in the conservative city, which lies on the edge of the tribal belt.

Militants also pressed on with a campaign to destroy schools in the north-west, blowing up a state-run high school for boys and a clinic. — AFP