QUETTA, Pakistan (Reuters) – Taliban leader Mullah Omar is not hiding in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province whose people will resist any U.S. attempt to extend its war against militancy there, the province’s chief minister said on Friday.
The United States is considering expanding its covert war in Pakistan into Baluchistan, the New York Times reported on Tuesday.
Afghan and foreign officials in Kabul have long said they believe several top Taliban leaders, including Omar, are hiding in Baluchistan. Pakistan, a U.S. ally in the campaign against militancy, denies that.
“Mullah Omar is not in Baluchistan, he’s in Afghanistan,” Baluchistan chief minister Mohammad Aslam Raisanitold reporters in the provincial capital, Quetta.
“If the CIA has any evidence of that they should tell us and we’ll get him and send him there,” he said, referring to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
The United States has stepped up strikes on militants in northwest Pakistan’s ethnic Pashtun tribal areas over the past year, mostly with CIA-operated drones that fire missiles.
Some U.S. officials say the missile strikes in the tribal areas have forced some Taliban and al Qaeda leaders to flee toward Quetta, making them more vulnerable, the Times said.
Pakistan objects to the missile strikes saying they are not only a violation of its sovereignty but complicate its efforts to tackle militants.
“As we have been saying all along, we believe such attacks are counter-productive,” Foreign Office spokesman Abdul Basit said this week, when asked about the Times report.
“They involve collateral damage and they are not helpful in our efforts to win heats and minds,” he said.
CIA director Leon Panetta is due in Islamabad on Friday and is expected to discuss the drone strikes with Pakistani leaders, Pakistani media reported.
“OPPOSE AND RESIST”
Raisani said there were two types of Taliban: the violent ones, fighting NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and peaceful ones studying at religious schools in Baluchistan. The word Taliban means religious students.
“The Taliban who are here are studying peacefully,” he said.
Pakistan supported the Taliban until the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and Afghanistan says it believes some elements in Pakistan still secretly back the militants for long-term strategic reasons.
Raisani said people of Baluchistan would oppose any expansion of the U.S. war into their province: “Baluchis are united and they will oppose and resist if drone attacks are carried out.”
U.S. drones have carried out more than 30 drone strikes since early 2008 when the United States, frustrated by an intensifying insurgency in Afghanistan getting support from the Pakistani side of the border, began attacking with greater frequency.
Eliminating militant support from Pakistani hideouts is seen as essential for winning the war in Afghanistan.
The strikes have killed about 300 people including several mid-level al Qaeda members, according to a tally of reports from Pakistani officials and residents of border regions.
The United States rarely comments on the strikes.
“We’ve done some serious damage to al Qaeda over the last number of months,” U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said this week, without confirming any missile attacks against al Qaeda targets.