Thousands of muslim fighters head into Afghanistan

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The Independent Online

More than 5,000 people rolled out of a north-eastern Pakistan village today in buses and trucks, pickups and vans, bound for the Afghan frontier and vowing to fight a holy war against the United States.

Pakistani men, young and old, had massed in Temergarah last night with assault rifles, machine guns, even rocket launchers. A few even carried axes and swords.

Their mission, they said was to enter Afghanistan's Kunar province and help the country's ruling Taliban defend against ground incursions by American troops.

"I am an old man. I consider myself lucky to go ? and to face the death of a martyr," said Shah Wazir, 70, a retired Pakistani army officer. He carried a French rifle from about 1920.

Organizers said similar-sized groups were massing in other towns across North West Frontier province, an enclave of ethnic Pashtuns with strong ties to neighbouring Afghanistan.

Volunteers gathered in scores of groups of 20, sitting on the ground to be briefed by military commanders, wearing black turbans and full beards similar to the Taliban militia, on the ways of jihad, or Islamic holy war.

"It is a difficult time for Islam and Muslims. We are in a test. Everybody should be ready to pass the test ? and to sacrifice our lives," said Mohammad Khaled, one brigade leader.

Hussain Khan, 19, a carpenter, carried a Kalashnikov and stood with his friend. He said he was leaving behind a fiancee and joining a just cause. "Whether I come back alive or I am dead, I'll be fortunate because I am fighting in the service of Islam," he said.

As the would-be warriors embraced and chanted anti-American slogans, Abdul Rasheed,17, asked one commander to allow him to join: "Please come with me and meet my father and convince him to let me go."

The call for holy war came this week from Sufi Mohammad, an outspoken Muslim cleric who runs a madrassa, or religious school, in nearby Madyan. He exhorted "true Muslims" to mass and prepare to go to Afghanistan to repel any US ground incursions.

How they will get there, and what they will do upon arrival, is uncertain. Their way station before entering Afghanistan is Bajur, a borderland village where volunteers from different area will come together this weekend.