At least 10 people were reported to have been killed in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province yesterday after al-Qa'ida fighters who had been detained while trying to enter Pakistan rebelled and began attacking their guards.
The fighters, mostly Arabs, many from Yemen, had crossed from Afghanistan's Tora Bora region into the Parrot's Beak, a peninsula of Pakistan territory that protrudes into Afghanistan, to escape American bombing of the White Mountains, where Osama bin Laden was believed to be holed up in a complex of caves.
Pakistani regular soldiers and paramilitaries sent into the autonomous tribal areas that line the Pakistani side of the border had captured 156 of the guerrillas and were transporting them from Parachinar to the nearest secure jail in the garrison town of Kohat when the violence flared. A group of captives screamed "Allahu akbar" (God is greatest), grabbed their guards' weapons and opened fire.
A Pakistani journalist in Parachinar said that six guards and four prisoners died in the ensuing gunfight, and at least 42 prisoners made off in four vans. Tribal police and Pakistani soldiers gave chase, recapturing 13 and surrounding the remaining 29, who were said last night to be under attack from tribal fighters and Pakistan's helicopter gunships.
The bloody escape attempt was a reminder of the problems faced by the Americans and their allies as they try to mop up the remnants of al-Qa'ida and hunt down its ringleader, Mr bin Laden.
The Durand Line, which divides Afghanistan from the North West Frontier Province, has never been recognised by any Afghan regime, and Pashtuns, identical in appearance, language and customs, habitually cross from one side to the other without hindrance.
To hold back the al-Qa'ida fighters, Pakistan has poured thousands of soldiers into the areas and set up 300 checkpoints. Helicopter gunships are patrolling the line.
Before yesterday's fighting erupted, Pakistan claimed to have captured at least 108 fighters fleeing Tora Bora, at least 60 of them Arabs and other non-Afghans. But the border has no fences, and guerrillas with good guides and better luck still stand a chance of slipping through the Pakistani net.
Western and Pakistani officials admitted on Tuesday that hundreds of Taliban and al-Qa'ida fighters had already managed to cross the border and many Taliban leaders had also melted away.
Even before the start of the US bombing campaign in early October, the popular mood among Pakistani Pashtuns in these tribal areas was violently pro-Taliban and anti-American. The small town of Hangu, for example, outside the tribal area but close to the Parrot's Beak, was one of the few towns in Pakistan where anti-American protests culminated in shops being burnt down and policemen killed. Demonstrations were stifled by the simple measure of putting police machine-gun emplacements on the roofs of the bazaar.
But though local solidarity with the Taliban is beyond doubt, whether such support extends to the Arab fighters roundly loathed by ordinary Afghans while the Taliban were still in power is unclear.
As Pakistan struggled to contain the new influx, on the Afghan side of the border American forces continued to lead an intensive search for al-Qa'ida stragglers and hold-outs, flying helicopters through the White Mountains on night missions while Afghan fighters swept cave hide-outs for guerrillas and documents.
What is becoming clear is that while Taliban rule has been wiped out and al-Qa'ida's infrastructure pulverised, hundreds of Taliban and al-Qa'ida loyalists have melted into the awesome topography. Either they have vanished into Pakistan to give its leader, the stalwart American ally General Pervez Musharraf, a severe headache, or they are hiding in Afghanistan's mountains to make the prospect of a safe, secure rule at any time soon seem increasingly remote.
During the mujahedin's struggle against the Soviet invaders, the Parrot's Beak was the mujahedin's main supply route from Pakistan. The disposition of friends and enemies has altered drastically, but the ground realities of Afghan warfare remain unchanged. That is the bleak and forbidding security background against which Britain is preparing this week to send Royal Marines, as part of the planned international force to bring peace to Afghanistan.Reuse content