ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan rejected as absurd on Thursday a claim from a Taliban spokesman arrested in Afghanistan that the Taliban’s fugitive leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, was living in Pakistan under the protection of its main spy agency.
Afghan officials have often said they believe Omar and other Taliban leaders are living in Pakistan. Many say privately they believe elements of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, are helping the insurgents.
But the claim from captured Taliban spokesman Mohammad Hanif, who was also an aide to Omar, appeared to be the first time a Taliban member had said Omar was in Pakistan, and not leading the insurgency in Afghanistan.
The Afghan government said on Tuesday authorities had arrested Hanif along with two other men the previous day after they crossed into Afghanistan from Pakistan.
In a video recording of part of his interrogation released by Afghan authorities, Hanif said Omar was living in the Pakistani city of Quetta under ISI protection.
He also said former ISI chief Hamid Gul was organising the training of suicide bombers at a religious school in Pakistan.
“This is as absolutely absurd and ridiculous a statement that one could have,” said Pakistani military spokesman Shaukat Sultan.
“It appears that it has been given under coercion and we outrightly reject it,” he said of Hanif’s video testimony.
He said Afghanistan should have provided evidence to Pakistani authorities.
Gul, ISI chief during the 1980s when the agency helped organise Afghan opposition to the Soviet invasion of their country, also dismissed Hanif’s statement.
Meanwhile, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, a key ally in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, warned of “punitive action” against militants hiding on Pakistani territory and called for strict measures by the Afghan authorities to stop “high-profile militants” from frequently crossing over into Pakistan.
His comments, at a meeting of the National Security Council, came two days after army helicopter gunships attacked a cluster of compounds in the mountainous South Waziristan tribal region, near the Afghan border, killing up to 20 militants.
Afghan suspicion of Pakistani support for the Taliban has seriously strained relations between the neighbours as the insurgency has intensified over the past year.
Pakistan was the main backer of the Taliban during the 1990s but officially stopped helping them after the September 11, 2001 attacks, when it joined the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
But some analysts say elements within Pakistan’s security services might still regard the Taliban as a useful tool in Afghanistan, where powerful northern factions traditionally close to India hold much power in Kabul.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said during a trip to Afghanistan this week Pakistan was “an extraordinarily strong ally” but militant incursions from Pakistan into Afghanistan were increasing.
A U.N. official in Afghanistan this month called on Pakistan to do more to tackle Taliban leaders in Quetta.
U.S. intelligence chief John Negroponte said last week al Qaeda leaders were hiding out in Pakistan and it would be necessary to eliminate Taliban safe havens in Pakistan’s tribal areas to end the Afghan insurgency.