INTERVIEW - Afghan governor: Pakistanis behind hostage crisis


GHAZNI, Afghanistan (Reuters) August 5, 2007. The governor of the Afghan province where Taliban militants took 23 South Koreans hostage accused Pakistani Taliban working with Pakistani intelligence agents of holding them captive. "In the beginning it was the local Taliban, but after a few days, Pakistani Taliban and ISI officers disguised as Taliban arrived in the region and they took control of the situation," Ghazni Governor Merajuddin Pattan told Reuters in an interview on Saturday. Afghan officials often accuse neighbouring Pakistan`s Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) of secretly supporting and harbouring Taliban insurgents. Pakistan strongly denies the charge. Pakistani officials were not immediately available for comment on Pattan`s accusation, which could spark another downturn in relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, both frontline allies of the United States. Afghan President Hamid Karzai was due in the United States on Sunday and Monday for talks with President George W. Bush. Pakistan`s ISI was one of the main backers of the Taliban movement as it rose to take over most of Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, but dropped its support in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. "PUT PRESSURE ON PAKISTAN" Taliban militants seized 23 Korean church volunteers from a bus in Ghazni province on the main road south from Kabul on July 20. The kidnappers have shot dead two male hostages after Kabul refused to give in to their demand and free Taliban prisoners. Pattan, a soft-spoken U.S.-educated economist, has been closely involved in talks between the Taliban kidnappers and an Afghan negotiating team sent from Kabul. He said that during one telephone conversation, he had heard one of the kidnappers translating from Pashto, the language used by ethnic Pashtun Taliban, to Urdu, Pakistan`s national language. He also noted that the kidnappers had stopped setting deadlines since South Korean presidential envoy Baek Jong-chun travelled to Islamabad on Thursday to ask Pakistan`s government and Islamist political leaders such as Fazal-ur-Rehman to use their influence to obtain the hostages` release. "I spoke to the Korean diplomats and I told them that if you want this problem to be ended very soon, please put pressure on Pakistan`s Foreign Ministry, they will put pressure on the ISI," Pattan said. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf this week, asking for help to free the hostages. Ban "was told that Pakistan had no links with the Taliban, no contacts," a spokesman for Musharraf said. Pattan accused Pakistan`s ISI of trying to show Afghanistan was weak and use the hostage crisis to overshadow a peace meeting, or jirga, between Afghan and Pakistani tribal elders next week that aims to find common ways to combat the Taliban and al Qaeda. Pakistan, itself struggling with a wave of pro-Taliban attacks, concedes some border infiltration is taking place, but says the core of the insurgency lies in Afghanistan.

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