Taliban backers take over Pakistani airfield

War on Terrorism: Protests
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The Independent Online

The coffins of six Pakistanis who died near the western Afghan city of Herat fighting for the Taliban were returned to Pakistan yesterday. Relatives chanted anti-American slogans and carried photographs of Osama bin Laden.

Earlier, as the Taliban warned volunteers to stay out of Afghanistan, another pro-Taliban protest took an alarming turn when angry tribesmen took over a remote airfield in the north of Pakistan's North-West Frontier. An official in the town of Gilgit said: "Chilas airstrip is in the use of the military but I heard an armed group has been there since evening."

Another group of armed tribesmen has used landmines to block the Karakoram Highway, which connects Pakistan with China. Other gangs were reported to have taken over a petrol station and a police roadblock. "They are very charged," a witness said. "[They are] trying to take over everything owned by the government."

For three days, several thousand Pakistani tribesmen have camped at the border with Afghanistan intending to cross into Taliban territory to become "holy warriors". At first the Pakistani authorities appeared to be preventing them from crossing, but yesterday the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan asked them to go home. "We have requested that since there are only air assaults in Afghanistan there is no need and great danger for them being there," said Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef in Islamabad.

Mr Zaeef's concern is deflating for Pakistanis who have been enlisting for the war in Afghanistan since the start of US-British bombing. Yesterday, Maulana Sufi Mohammed, the leader of the group camped at the border, crossed to Afghanistan with a hundred men for discussions with the Taliban.

A blindness to danger and an eagerness to die for Islam are regarded as a prerequisite of mujahedin, so the reasons cited by Mr Zaeef may not be the whole story. It is possible that the age of some volunteers put off the Taliban – some appeared to be in their seventies.

The Taliban may be under pressure from Islamabad to discourage its extremist elements, which have been doing their best to whip up fury against the Pakistani leader, General Pervez Musharraf.

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