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Monday, 17 December, 2001, 17:38 GMT
Pakistan's Bin Laden dilemma
Pakistani troops
Thousands of troops are reinforcing the border
Despite strengthening border security, Pakistan is bracing itself for the possibility that Osama Bin Laden has entered the country.

A defence correspondent for Pakistani newspaper, The News, told the BBC that he believed there was "every likelihood" that rumours that the al-Qaeda leader has already crossed the border are correct.


We've sealed the borders ... the total strength is quite substantial

General Rashid Qureshi
"It would be a nightmare scenario for Pakistan ... they don't want that to happen at all," said Kamal Khan. "At the same time, it's a very porous, mountainous border, and it can happen at any time."

He said that border troops were on "war alert", and tribal leaders have been instructed by the authorities not to grant Bin Laden sanctuary.

President Musharraf's top military adviser, General Rashid Qureshi, has said that the borders are sealed and tribal leaders have promised to co-operate.

If Bin Laden is captured in Pakistan, Mr Khan said he was confident that the al-Qaeda leader would be handed over to US forces.

Backlash

But Pakistan's border region is semi-autonomous, and many tribes are known to be sympathetic to both al-Qaeda and the Taleban.

With anti-US feeling also running high, there are fears that any attempt to capture Bin Laden would generate a considerable backlash, with the potential to destabilise the whole country.

Osama Bin Laden chewing gum packet
Bin Laden remains an icon to some in Pakistan
However, other commentators say self-preservation could prove to be a decisive factor.

Tribal leaders may be wary of accomodating Osama Bin Laden on the grounds that he will inevitably attract US attention and compromise their autonomy.

Whether Bin Laden is welcome or not, most observers broadly agree that the search for the man the US blames for the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington is likely to become more complicated diplomatically.

"It would be a very significant problem, mainly because questions start then as to who would be responsible for [his] capture," said Thomas Withington from the Centre for Defence Studies at Kings College in London.

"Would it still be US special forces, or would it be Pakistan itself? Certainly that would open up some very difficult questions of in terms of which armed forces have jurisdiction and responsibility," he told the BBC.

Internal issue

President Pervez Musharraf's top military spokesman General Rashid Qureshi has said that if such a situation arises, capturing Bin Laden will be an internal issue.


I don't think the legitimacy of American forces is a problem in Islamabad, but it is in the north west areas

Thomas Withington, defence analyst

And this, says Thomas Withington, could prove to be to the Americans' advantage.

"One shouldn't underestimate the Pakistani armed forces ... they are one of the most advanced and tactically gifted in South Asia.

"They also have very good experience in mountain warfare because of operations they have conducted against India in Kashmir."

And though the US is very unlikely to entirely relinquish its quarry to Pakistan, he cautioned that accepting even the smallest amount of US assistance would be a "bitter pill" for President Musharraf to swallow.

"I don't think the legitimacy of American forces on the ground is a problem in Islamabad, but it is in the north west areas," said Mr Withington.

"I think there is still a high degree of scepticism there towards US actions and I think in the coming months we might see [a] US presence on the ground [and] more anger in those areas," he added.

'No escape'

General Rashid Qureshi told the BBC that he was confident that Bin Laden will not slip through the net.

"We've sealed the borders, especially opposite Tora Bora. We've not only beefed up border security, we've also got regular army battalions and brigades.

"The good news is that all tribes in the area have pledged full support and have promised they will also assist. The moment they find out about anyone crossing the border, they are in direct contact with the army," he added.

See also:

17 Dec 01 | South Asia
Bin Laden's hiding places
18 Sep 01 | South Asia
Who is Osama Bin Laden?
27 Nov 01 | South Asia
Analysis: What next for al-Qaeda?
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