Pakistan demands US troops leave as Bin Laden row grows

Pakistan’s military on Thursday demanded the United States reduce its troop presence in the country to a “minimum” as the fallout from the killing of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden intensified.

After days of questions in Washington over how Bin Laden could find shelter in the town of Abbottabad, army chief of staff General Ashfaq Kayani threatened to “review” cooperation with the US in the event of another similar raid.

Pakistan is a key US ally in the war against Islamist militants in Afghanistan, but the relationship between Washington and Islamabad has often been tense, even before the architect of the September 11 2001 attacks was gunned down by US Navy Seals early Monday.

In a statement Pakistan’s military admitted there had been “shortcomings” in developing intelligence on bin Laden’s whereabouts and said an investigation had been ordered.

But it said that Kayani had told army corps commanders “about the decision to reduce the strength of US military personnel in Pakistan to the minimum level”, without saying who had made the decision.

Don’t do it again
Kayani “made it very clear that any similar action violating the sovereignty will warrant a review of military, intelligence cooperation with the US”, the statement went on.

The exact number of US military personnel in Pakistan is not known.

The presence of US Special Operations troops was uncovered by a 2010 suicide attack in which three of them were killed, and officials then confirmed 200 US military personnel were in the country.

Last month, the New York Times reported that about 335 American personnel, including CIA officers and Special Operations forces, were being asked to leave Pakistan in the wake of the killing of two men by Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor.

Kayani’s comments came after Pakistan said the notion that its powerful spies had been working hand in glove with al-Qaeda “flies in the face” of the truth.

“It’s easy to say that the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) or elements within the government were in cahoots with al-Qaeda,” top foreign ministry official Salman Bashir said.

“This is a false hypothesis. This is a false charge. It cannot be validated on any account and it flies in the face of what Pakistanis and in particular the ISI has been able to accomplish,” he said.

In Washington and beyond there is incredulity that Bin Laden could have found shelter under the noses of the military establishment in Abbottabad, a leafy garrison town just two hours’ drive from the capital.

Some US lawmakers are demanding a cut to the billions in aid that flow to Pakistan each year, which is meant to shore up both nations’ uneasy alliance as US-led forces fight the Taliban in Pakistan’s neighbour Afghanistan.

CIA chief Leon Panetta has said Washington kept Islamabad in the dark about the Bin Laden raid for fear of the al-Qaeda chief being tipped off.

Pakistan’s civilian leadership and intelligence officials have scorned accusations that the country provides safe haven to extremists, but some newspapers noted a sense of national shame after the discovery of Bin Laden.

In an editorial, the top-selling daily Jang said it was “heartbreaking” for the public to find out that the ISI was seemingly ignorant of his true location in a fortified compound close to an elite military academy in Abbottabad.

But in a country where anti-US sentiment runs deep, there is also rampant scepticism about the US version of events, which has been fuelled by the White House’s decision not to release gruesome photographs of Bin Laden’s body.

Citing national security risks, President Barack Obama said on Wednesday that the US should not brandish “trophies” of its victory.

“It is important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence, as a propaganda tool,” Obama told the CBS programme 60 Minutes.

“That’s not who we are. You know, we don’t trot out this stuff as trophies,” Obama said, arguing that DNA and facial recognition testing had proved beyond doubt that the Saudi-born extremist was dead.

Other casualties
The “very graphic” nature of the scene described by Obama appeared to be shown in photos obtained by the Reuters news agency of three unidentified dead men in the Abbottabad house — none of whom resembled Bin Laden.

Aside from Bin Laden, US and Pakistani officials say four people were killed in the raid — including two brothers who were trusted al-Qaeda couriers and one believed to have been a son of Bin Laden.

One of Bin Laden’s children, now in custody along with a Yemeni wife of the slain al-Qaeda leader, saw her father shot dead, a Pakistani intelligence official said.

The girl, reported to be 12 years old, “was the one who confirmed to us that Osama was dead and shot and taken away”, said the Pakistani official.

Even without photographic proof, hard-line religious groups in Pakistan have offered prayers for Bin Laden, rather than taking to the streets and insisting he is still alive.

Impunity questioned
But Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s oldest religious party, gave vent to a widespread sense of national shame that US forces had struck with impunity deep into Pakistani territory.

“It was a clear violation of our sovereignty, it was an act of aggression even if Osama bin Laden was there or not,” said Khurshid Ahmed, the party’s vice-president.

Bin Laden’s body was buried at sea off a US warship to prevent any grave on land from becoming a shrine. The Abbottabad villa that served as his lair has instead become a macabre monument for locals and media alike.

“More and more people are coming,” Mohammad Saleem, a senior police officer at the site, told AFP. There has been no unrest so far, he said, adding: “We have no way to know who’s a potential Osama supporter and who’s not.”

Obama was to lay a wreath in memory of the September 11 victims during a visit Thursday to Ground Zero, where the World Trade Centre towers were toppled by airliners hijacked by al-Qaeda operatives.

The White House said he would meet victims’ families in private but would not make a speech, in an apparent sign he is wary of his trip being seen as an overtly political affair.

“He wants to meet with them and share with them this important and significant moment, a bittersweet moment, I think, for many families of the victims,” White House spokesperson Jay Carney said.

While quietly rejoicing at the elimination of America’s most wanted man, the Obama administration has been forced to defend the legality of the raid, after acknowledging that Bin Laden was unarmed when he was shot in the head.

United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay said the United Nations, while condemning terrorism, demanded that anti-terror operations complied with international law.

“I’m still for a full disclosure of the accurate facts” regarding the raid, she told reporters in Oslo. — Sapa-AFP

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