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Thursday, 22 November, 2001, 21:22 GMT
Pakistan's fear for Kunduz militants
Northern Alliance soldiers advance on Kunduz
Northern Alliance troops are closing on Kunduz
Zaffar Abbas

The presence of a large number of armed Pakistani militants in the Afghan city of Kunduz has been a major cause for concern - and embarrassment - for Islamabad.

The militants are part of a force of several thousand foreign fighters supporting the Taleban who held out in Kunduz for a fortnight.

There would be less sympathy in Pakistan if the volunteers turned out to be battle-hardened members of one of the hardline pro-Taleban group

Even though none of these Pakistani volunteers went to Afghanistan with official permission, their presence in Kunduz in such a large number has embarrassed the government.

But it is really the prospect of their mass killing at the hands of the Northern Alliance forces which had made Islamabad anxious.

Fears that the foreign militants might be massacred has already charged the atmosphere in Pakistan.

As a result, not only the hard-line Islamic groups but many other political parties and even the anti-Taleban human rights groups and peace activists, have been holding protest demonstrations and calling for international intervention.

Many analysts believe President Pervez Musharraf's government is caught in a difficult situation.

Protest in Karachi
There is vocal pro-Taleban support in Pakistan
It does not want the volunteers to be killed by the Northern Alliance, but neither does it want to take them back, as they may become heroes for Pakistan's hard-line Islamic movement.

Though Pakistan is part of the US-led coalition, President Musharraf's anxiety about the situation in Kunduz is understandable.

Growing concern at home has already compelled him to speak to British Prime Minister Tony Blair and US Secretary of State Collin Powell by telephone, asking them to use their influence over the Northern alliance to avert a possible bloodbath.

He also met the head of the Red Cross in Islamabad to discuss the possibility of their presence in Kunduz to oversee any surrender by the militants.

The identities of the Pakistani fighters who fought in Kunduz is unknown.

Respect at home

There is a strong possibility that most of them are the tribesmen who crossed into Afghanistan to support the Taleban when the US bombing started.

Many of them are not trained fighters but had gone to take part in what they had thought was a jihad, or holy war.

Though it has been a lost cause, and many of them have returned to face the wrath of the government, there is considerable respect for them in Islamic circles.

Taleban leaving Kunduz
Some Taleban have managed to flee Kunduz and surrender
There would be less sympathy in Pakistan if the volunteers turned out to be battle-hardened members of one of the hardline pro-Taleban groups.

Many of them are wanted in Pakistan for involvement in sectarian terrorism.

But even then, many Pakistanis would like them to be brought back to face legal action.

To stop Taleban elements or members of Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda group slipping into Pakistan disguised as refugees, the Pakistani Government is to set up hundreds of army check-points along the border.

Border guards are also under orders to arrest Pakistani volunteers who return to the country with their weapons.

A prominent Islamic leader, Sufi Mohammed, and 30 members of his group, Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammed (TNSM) were each sentenced to three years' in jail when they returned from Afghanistan this week.

Plea for protection

Senior officials say most of the other returnees will face the same fate.

Though the government is determined not to let these militants go free on their return to Pakistan, it still wants the international community to protect them against reprisal killings in Kunduz.

President Musharraf is hoping the United States and Britain will use their influence to save him from possible political problems by resolving the Kunduz crisis amicably.

The BBC's Susannah Price in Islamabad
"Pakistan has expressed its deep concern about any massacre or bloodshed"
See also:

22 Nov 01 | South Asia
Pakistan warns against revenge killings
22 Nov 01 | South Asia
Pakistan severs Taleban ties
20 Nov 01 | South Asia
Pakistan closes Taleban consulates
19 Nov 01 | South Asia
Pakistan's Taleban ties dissolve
13 Nov 01 | South Asia
Pakistan concern at Kabul's fall
07 Nov 01 | South Asia
Analysis: Pakistan's vested interests
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