ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's top security official Monday admitted that al Qaida's leadership moved freely in and out of the country and vowed that "no mercy" would be shown to extremists based in its tribal territory that borders Afghanistan.
In the past, Pakistan has been heavily criticized for rejecting evidence that al Qaida was largely based in the country and for denying that the tribal territory was used as a safe haven for Afghan insurgents.
Rehman Malik, the interior ministry chief, revealed that al Qaida deputy leader Ayman al Zawahiri and his wife had been in Mohmand, part of the tribal area. Most of time, Malik said Zawahiri was mainly in Afghanistan's Kunar and Paktia provinces.
"We certainly had traced him (Zawahiri) at one place, but we missed the chance. So he's moving in Mohmand and, of course, sometimes in Kunar, mostly in Kunar and Paktia," Malik told reporters in Islamabad.
Malik, a politician who was put in charge of the interior ministry after his Pakistan People's Party emerged as the largest group in a coalition government that formed after elections in February, gave no further details on Zawahiri's movements. In the past, Islamabad has refuted suggestions that Zawahiri and al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden were hiding in Pakistan.
Kamran Bokhari, director of Middle East analysis at Strategic Forecasting, a private U.S. intelligence firm, said: "For the longest time, there's been denial within the Pakistani leadership. They were under no pressure to say there was al Qaida (in Pakistan). Now, with the events of the last 17-18 months, the Pakistanis have had a sort of rude awakening."
Extremist groups in Pakistan launched a vicious campaign of suicide bombings last year, aimed at both military and civilian targets. The attacks are thought to be directed by al Qaida.
But Malik called for more action from other countries too. He said that the al Qaida "syndicate" was allowed to operate across the region, from Iraq to the Philippines, and "free passage was given to them" to come to Pakistan. "We need a regional dialogue," he added.
In another break from Pakistan's recent approach, the interior ministry chief said that Islamabad planned to use the tribes in its border area to fight the extremists, indicating that a 15,000-strong militia of volunteers would be assembled.
The move would ape the success of the U.S. approach in Anbar province in Iraq, where Sunni tribes were armed and paid to fight al Qaida in Iraq and other Sunni extremists.
Malik said that in Bajaur, part of Pakistan's tribal territory, the Salarzai tribe had raised its own force, known as a "lashkar." Moderate tribesmen are wary of resisting the extremists because of a lack of backup from the Pakistan state. "They (tribes) were left high and dry before, it's true," Malik conceded.
Pakistani authorities previously sought to draw a sharp distinction between homegrown militants and al Qaida, which is led by Arabs. But the interior ministry official declared that al Qaida had morphed into Pakistan's Taliban movement, known as Tehreek-e-Taliban, which is a copy of Afghanistan's Taliban guerrillas.
"There's no doubt in my mind that the Tehreek-e-Taliban and al Qaida are the same thing," Malik said. "They have not only connections, I would say Tehreek-e-Taliban is an extension of al Qaida. The mouthpiece is now Tehreek-e-Taliban."
He also conceded that the fighters "operate on both sides" of the border. Malik's remarks came amid signs that Washington is more comfortable with Islamabad's role in the anti-terror fight, after years of accusing Pakistan of not doing enough and being too ready to enter into peace negotiations with the militants.
"We either hand over Pakistan to these Taliban or we fight back," Malik said. "I can assure you that they (the militants) are on the run. Either they can surrender or die."
It is not just rhetoric this time, analysts said. In recent weeks, Pakistan has launched military offensives in two parts of the tribal territory, Khyber and Bajaur, and in the neighboring area of Swat. Over the weekend, Malik announced a cease-fire in Bajaur, to mark Ramadan, the month of fasting for Muslims. On Monday, responding to criticism that this would give the extremists breathing space, he stressed that the truce would last only a month and the security forces would crack down on any militant activity during that period.
Washington will be relieved that no peace deal was signed with the cease-fire, and Malik said none was planned.
"This time, I think they (the Pakistani authorities) are serious," said Sayed "GB" Bokhari, an analyst based in Peshawar. "In the past, they didn't complete the job ever because politics intervened and peace accords were signed."
(Shah is McClatchy's special correspondent in Pakistan.)
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