Eighty-five Pakistanis fighting on the side of the Taliban against the Northern Alliance in northern Afghanistan were killed by American bombs yesterday, according to a spokesman for the militant group to which they belonged.
The Pakistan volunteers with a group called Harkat Jihadi-i-Islam (Alami) were south of the bitterly contested city of Mazar-i-Sharif when they died, said Kamal Azfara, a spokesman for the group.
The militants had been helping Taliban forces defend the city against a long-expected attack by the Northern Alliance, the residual opposition to the Taliban which before 11 September held about 5 per cent of Afghan territory, most of it close to the border with Tajikistan in the north-east.
The Taliban's front line in the north has come under intense attack during the past week as the United States has sent in B-52s to carpet bomb the area.
There has not yet been any independent confirmation of the deaths of the Pakistanis, but the presence on Afghan soil of many zealous Pakistani ''holy warriors'' is common knowledge. Embarrassing to President Pervez Musharraf, now visiting western capitals, who signed up Pakistan for the West's ''war on terror'', they offer a hint of how awkward the situation in Pakistan could become if General Musharraf's grip on the situation should slacken for any reason.
The relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan is a fluid one. The core leadership of the Taliban are Afghan Pashtuns, but many of them were Afghan refugee orphans brought up in madrassas, Islamic seminaries, inside Pakistan. The Durand Line that divides Afghanistan from the Pashtun regions of Pakistan has never been accepted by any Afghan government.
Similarly, in their urgent desire to acquire ''strategic depth'', Pakistan's military planners have been in the habit of treating Afghanistan as a fifth Pakistani province.
Kamal Azfar said that the fighters were sent to the area after the Allies' bombing raids began. Many other zealous Pakistanis have tried to cross over to fight, but in recent days they have been turned back by border guards. Today right-wing religious parties opposed to the war and in favour of the Taliban have called a nationwide general strike in Pakistan.Reuse content