Afghans evacuate border towns

By Anwar Faruqi

Associated Press

CHAMAN, Pakistan — Girding for a U.S. ground attack, Afghanistan’s Taliban fighters are arming supporters along both sides of the border and ordering people to evacuate towns and villages in the area, residents and Pakistani officials said Saturday.

Villagers who live along Pakistan’s long, porous border also said the Taliban have dug trenches and fortified positions along the Afghan side of the frontier. On Friday, Pakistan’s Frontier Corps was digging its own trenches on the low, drab hills that overlook the road to the border.

The border has been tense since Pakistan, once the Taliban’s staunchest ally, pledged to cooperate in U.S.-led efforts to flush out or kill Osama bin Laden, who lives in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban.

Qila Leva, whose dirt-poor population of 200 straddles both sides of the border, is one of the villages ordered evacuated by the Taliban.

"About six days ago, some Taliban came and told us to leave," said Hadi Shad Khan, 50, whose home is on the Pakistani side of the line. "They said they wanted to build fortifications here."

The Taliban appeared to be making preparations in case any U.S. assault came on the ground at this southern stretch of the border near the Taliban stronghold Kandahar, where the terrain is less mountainous. U.S. military leaders have hinted at imminent ground action after days of bombardment of Afghanistan, but have not said what form it will take.

Col. Mohammed Sarwar, commander of Pakistan’s Frontier Corps, confirmed Saturday that he had met with Taliban officials the day before to warn the Afghans against trying to clear Qila Leva and other territories that belong to Pakistan.

"They asked the villagers to leave a few days ago," Sarwar said. "We told them to stop doing this."

An intelligence agent familiar with Sarwar’s talks said the commander also warned the Taliban against arming supporters or stockpiling arms close to the border. But Sarwar, who discussed the matter only reluctantly, said those topics were not discussed.

In Spin Boldak, Alauddin Ayatullah, a young, bearded Taliban preacher at the local mosque, said loyalists were being given arms.

"We have arms and we are circulating them. But we are not giving them to just anyone, only to the trusted people whom we know," Ayatullah said.

In recent days, truckloads of young militant Muslims from around Pakistan and abroad have been passing through Chaman on their way to fight alongside the Taliban — or, they say, to die in a jihad, or holy war, against the United States.

Copyright ©2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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