Sunday Telegraph, March 25, 2007
Taliban 'invite' 10,000 Uzbeks to Helmand
The Uzbeks are believed to have killed more than 1,500 local tribesmen in the past two years
By Massoud Ansari
Islamic militants linked to Osama bin Laden have been offered a safe haven by the Taliban in Afghanistan, bringing them into conflict with British troops patrolling the lawless province of Helmand.
Uzbek gunmen, who fought a series of bloody battles last week with Pakistani tribesmen in the border region of Waziristan, where they had been living, have been told they should join the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan instead.
The move raises the prospect of a major upsurge in violence in Helmand, where 43 British soldiers have been killed in clashes with militants over the last five years.
The group of around 10,000 Uzbeks are led by Tahir Yuldashev, a close associate of the al-Qaeda terrorist chief, who is believed to be hiding out in the mountainous border area with his chief henchman Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The members of the Islamic Movement Union of Uzbekistan fell out with their Pakistani hosts after accusing some tribal leaders of acting as agents of the Pakistani government, which is under huge pressure from the US to crack down on Islamic militants. Pakistan government officials said that nearly 160 people, including 130 Uzbeks, were killed in the battle.
Taliban fighters intervened to broker a ceasefire but local officials have told The Sunday Telegraph that neither side is likely to back down. Taliban sources have revealed that they have offered the Uzbeks safe passage into Afghanistan in order to bring an end to the violence.
The militant group are wanted by the Uzbek government of President Islam Karimov and cannot return to their own country.
Lateef Afridi, a tribal leader and former national assembly member from the Frontier province, who is privy to details of the discussions, said: "These tribesmen are quite determined to flush them out. Given that these Uzbeks cannot be extradited back to their own country because they are all wanted there, one way they are considering to accommodate them is to send them to Afghanistan."
Mr Afridi said the Taliban felt compelled to give the Uzbeks a way out because if the battle continued between the local tribesmen and the foreign fighters, the Taliban elements would have to choose which side to back, unleashing further bloodshed. Another source added: "Both the sides are led by highly trained militants and if the fighting is not stopped, there will be massive killings."
A second tribal leader said the local and Afghan Taliban forces had already approached the Uzbeks and asked them to continue their jihad in Taliban-dominated areas in Afghanistan, in a bid to "reinvigorate their campaign of violence against Nato troops". They have been offered safe passage to either Kunar, Paktia or Helmand, where British troops are braced for a spring offensive from the Taliban.
Britain has announced plans to raise the UK military presence in Afghanistan to more than 7,000 troops. But the presence of a new wave of heavily armed guerrilla fighters is likely to leave troops stretched further and strengthen calls for an even greater military presence.
For Pakistan, forcing out the Uzbeks has the advantage of undermining support for Osama bin Laden.
His deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has been spotted in Waziristan several times. If the local tribesmen succeed, it will deny bin Laden one more safe haven for his associates, according to one western diplomat.
The Uzbeks are believed to have killed more than 1,500 local tribesmen in the past two years and are blamed for kidnapping others.
Mr Afridi said: "The partial ceasefire was achieved only for a time being, when the Taliban leaders intervened, but it did not give both the parties enough time to carry out the dead. The corpses and broken limbs of the dead are scattered all over the area."
Characters Count: 4217