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Mullah Omar not in Pakistan, Taliban commander says

CHAMAN, Pakistan (Reuters) - Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar is not in Pakistan and the United States is only saying he is there to justify an expansion of its drone missile strikes, a Taliban commander said on Wednesday.

The Washington Post said this week U.S. officials had expressed concern over the ability of Omar and his lieutenants to launch attacks into Afghanistan from sanctuaries around the Pakistani city of Quetta.

Pakistan has long denied that Omar or any of his commanders are based in Pakistan but it has been unable to dispel the suspicion in Washington and Kabul. Several Taliban members have been detained in Pakistan.

Mounting U.S. concern about Omar and his so-called Quetta shura, or leadership council, comes as the United States weighs options on how to deal with an intensifying Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.

Possibilities include sending more combat troops and trainers for the Afghan army and stepping up strikes by pilotless drone aircraft on militants on the Pakistani side of the border.

A Taliban commander, Hayatullah Khan, told Reuters by telephone that the entire Taliban leadership was in Afghanistan.

“Pakistan is not safe for us. More of our people have been captured in Pakistan than in Afghanistan so everybody is here including Mullah Omar,” said Khan, who said he was speaking from Afghanistan, although he declined to be specific.

“The Americans are making the Quetta shura an excuse for an expansion of their drone strikes to Baluchistan, nothing else,” said Khan, referring to the southwestern province of which Quetta is capital, which borders southern Afghanistan.

Pakistan, battling al Qaeda-linked Pakistani Taliban militants in ethnic Pashtun lands to the north of Baluchistan, says the Quetta shura does not exist.

But many analysts say Pakistan is acting only against militants which are a threat to itself, like the Pakistani Taliban, while leaving alone those focused on fighting in Afghanistan or on targeting India.

U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Anne W. Patterson told the Washington Post the Quetta shura was “high on Washington’s list.”

The United States intensified its attacks by pilotless drones on militants in northwestern Pakistani border sanctuaries last year as the Afghan insurgency intensified.

The United States has launched nearly 60 strikes in northwest Pakistan since the beginning of 2008, but none has been in Baluchistan.

The strikes are deeply unpopular in a country where many people are suspicious of U.S. designs in the region.

Pakistan officially objects to the drone attacks, saying they violate its sovereignty and the civilian casualties they inflict inflame public anger.

U.S. officials say the strikes are carried out under an agreement with Islamabad that allows Pakistani leaders to decry the attacks in public.

Pakistan is already facing a low-level insurgency by separatists in impoverished but gas-rich Baluchistan and has decried any suggestion of an expansion of the U.S. drone war to the province.

The U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, said in an assessment leaked to the media last week the Afghan insurgency was clearly supported from Pakistan and senior leaders of insurgent groups were based there.

Analysts say Pakistan is worried about the growing influence of old rival India in Afghanistan and some Pakistani security officials see the Taliban as a tool to counter that influence.

Writing by Kamran Haider; Editing by Robert Birsel