WASHINGTON (AFP) -Pakistan’s prime minister firmly rejected US complaints that Al-Qaeda leaders had found safe haven in his country.
But Shaukat Aziz admitted his government was struggling to stop insurgents loyal to Afghanistan’s ousted Taliban regime moving in and out of Pakistan border areas that house some three million Afghan refugees.
In unusually frank criticism of a key ally in the US war on terrorism, President George W. Bush’s top intelligence advisor, John Negroponte, and other US officials last week said senior Al-Qaeda leaders were continuing to operate from “secure hideouts” in Pakistan.
“We totally reject this charge,” Aziz said Sunday in an interview on CNN.
“Pakistan is a country in the world which has done more for fighting terrorism than anybody else,” he said.
“This is because of conviction by our government and our people that terrorism is no solution to any problem,” he said.
Aziz said his government had no information indicating that Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden or his top lieutenants were hiding in unruly tribal areas along the Afghan border.
“The truth is that if any of these or other individuals are in our territory, we will go after them,” he said.
“In fact, if the world knew where these people are, they would collectively come and go after them wherever they are,” he said.
Aziz also insisted his government was committed to securing the border with Afghanistan so that Taliban elements could not set up bases from which to launch attacks on Afghan government forces or the NATO troops supporting them.
“The policy of the government is not to encourage, not to give safe haven” to the Taliban, he said.
But Aziz said the presence of some three million Afghan refugees inside Pakistan made it very difficult to seal the border entirely and he renewed a call for the camps to be closed and their residents be returned home.
“Today, we do have three million people and you know, they all look alike, so if somebody is having a different political view, or is a member of the Taliban, that is possible,” he said.
“That’s why we want these camps to go and the refugees to leave,” he said.
Pakistan’s foreign ministry earlier this week lamented Negroponte’s remarks, made in testimony to a Senate committee, as “questionable criticism”.
Pakistan says it has arrested more than 700 Al-Qaeda operatives since the movement carried out the September 11, 2002, attacks on the United States.
It has also deployed around 80,000 troops to hunt down Al-Qaeda fugitives who sneaked across the border after the ouster of the fundamentalist Taliban in late 2001.
Pakistan has recently floated a controversial proposal to mine the porous border, after mounting allegations militants were using tribal areas to launch attacks on foreign and Afghan forces in southern and eastern Afghanistan.
Afghanistan has rejected the proposal, saying it will divide Pashtun tribes straddling the 2,500-kilometer (1,600-mile) border.