NEW YORK, (AP) – Pakistan’s top diplomat said Saturday there are no U.S. or other foreign military personnel on the hunt for Osama bin Laden in his nation, and none will be allowed in to search for the al-Qaeda leader.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said his nation’s new government has ruled out such military operations, covert or otherwise, to catch militants.
“Our government’s policy is that our troops, paramilitary forces and our regular forces are deployed in sufficient numbers. They are capable of taking action there. And any foreign intrusion would be counterproductive,” he said Saturday. “People will not accept it. Questions of sovereignty come in.”
The United States has grown increasingly frustrated as al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other militants thrive in Pakistan’s remote areas and in neighboring Afghanistan, and has offered U.S. troops to strike at terror networks. Critics in Washington also have expressed frustration with the new Pakistani government’s pursuit of peace deals in the region.
Bin Laden is believed to be hiding somewhere along the rugged and lawless Afghan-Pakistan border region.
Pakistan’s newly elected civilian government is negotiating with tribal elders to secure peace with militants along the Afghan border in hopes of curbing a surge in violence. It is a step back from the heavy-handed tactics pursued by the previous government led by supporters of President Pervez Musharraf.
Tension between the U.S. and Pakistan have been high after Pakistan said U.S. aircraft killed 11 of its soldiers at a border post in June. U.S. officials have said coalition aircraft dropped bombs during a clash with militants.
Despite Pakistan’s previous statements that it does not allow U.S. forces on its territory, villagers in the border region that is a haven for al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters have reported seeing U.S. drones fire missiles at suspected militant targets on several occasions in recent years.
Qureshi said he tried to reassure Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at their meeting Friday that his government was doing everything it can to combat militants in lawless tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
Pakistan and Afghanistan regularly exchange criticism about not doing more to fight extremists operating along their long, remote, mountainous border that is seen by the U.S. as crucial to stopping terrorism.
Qureshi acknowledged “there are some infiltrations” still occurring, but there are no covert U.S. military operations trying to catch al-Qaeda figures and its chief, Taliban members or any other suspected militants.
“There are none,” he said. “It will create such an anti-U.S. feeling in Pakistan that I would say would mar the atmosphere of cooperation that exists between us.”
Qureshi described Pakistan’s counterterrorism as a “grassroots” approach.
“Our strategy is that the military option alone is not enough,” he said. “This war has to be fought besides the armies, with the help of the people, by winning hearts and minds.”
Does he believe bin Laden is in Pakistan?
“I don’t think so. I’m not sure,” he said. “Nobody’s aware of that. Nobody can speak with certainty. But our policy’s very clear. We are allies in this war. And if Pakistan has actionable information vis-a-vis Osama bin laden or any other high value target, Pakistan will immediately take action.”
Qureshi also met Thursday with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who agreed to Pakistan’s request to establish an independent commission that will investigate former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s killing.
On Saturday, Qureshi declined to repeat the accusations by Musharraf’s government and the CIA that Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, a Pakistani militant commander often blamed for suicide attacks, had orchestrated the Dec. 27 killing.
“We cannot jump to conclusions before the investigation is started,” Qureshi said. “You cannot rule it out that he was responsible, but you cannot say with certainty that he is responsible. Only the inquiry will determine who was or was not responsible.”
Qureshi also ruled out any future investigation into whether his nation’s military helped disgraced Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan spread nuclear weapons to rogue nations.
“What had to be found out, was found out,” he said. “A.Q. Khan, as far as we are considered, is history. A.Q. Khan no longer has any official status. The network that he put together has been effectively broken.”