Pakistan Militia Hunts Al Qaeda Fugitives

The government may extend a deadline for tribal leaders in Pakistan's remote border regions to turn over suspected Al Qaeda (search) fugitives because officials said on Monday they believe the fiercely independent tribesmen are sincere in their search.

The 2,000-man tribal militia, or lashkar, moved into the remote mountains near the Afghan border on Sunday, spurred by a government deadline to hand over Taliban (search) and Al Qaeda holdouts or face attack. Officials said the militia burned down the houses of two tribesmen on Monday who had ignored warnings from the elders and sheltered Al Qaeda fugitives.

"We don't want bloodshed. If there can be a peaceful solution of this problem we will prefer that," Syed Iftikhar Hussain Shah, governor of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, told a news conference in provincial capital Peshawar. "We will watch the situation for two or three days."

Previous efforts to force local leaders evict foreign terrorists and local sympathizers have failed. Last month, Pakistan's army killed more than 60 militants and arrest 163 suspects in the area after tribal leaders ignored calls to give up Al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives that may include Usama bin Laden (search) and his No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri (search). At least 48 soldiers and an unknown number of civilians also died.

The lashkar is "more determined" than previous ones and had the support of the local Yargul Khel tribe, Shah said. Tribesmen were not offering any resistance but there had been no arrests.

Tribal elders had asked the government to extend the deadline by 10 days so it could capture or kill the fugitives.

"If they deliver positively then we don't have any problems to give them more time, but if they just want to prolong this process, then we will reconsider," Shah said.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Masood Khan told a press conference in Islamabad that authorities wanted to "exhaust all the political options."

"The army is not contemplating military action at the moment," he said.

Pakistan, a key ally of the United States in the war on terror, has stepped up its campaign against suspected terrorists since the Taliban were ousted from power in Afghanistan in late 2001. It has faced criticism, including recently from the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, for failing to stop cross-border infiltration by Al Qaeda and Taliban rebels.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Masood Khan accused Khalilzad on Monday of trying to cause misunderstanding between Pakistan and the United States, and said it would protest his comments to the U.S. government.

Khan told a press conference in Islamabad that Pakistan is doing "more than enough" to counter terrorists on its border with Afghanistan.

Authorities are providing the tribal forces with tents, food and other facilities, said Rahmatullah Wazir, a government official in Wana.

"The foreign terrorists are on the run. They are not resisting," said Roohullah Khan, a resident of the Azam Warsak area west of Wana.

Shah repeated an offer of amnesty for foreign militants — many of them long-term inhabitants in Pakistan's tribal regions and veterans of the 1980s resistance to the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan.

It would require that the foreigners surrender and agree not to use Pakistan as a base for terrorism in neighboring countries. Local elders would also need to assure the government that the foreigners would abide by Pakistani laws, Shah said.