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Wednesday, 26 September, 2001, 12:55 GMT 13:55 UK
Zaffar Abbas in Islamabad
Transcript


Newshost:

Steven Eyons, Auckland, New Zealand asks: We hear that Pakistan is either "opening" or "closing" its border with Afghanistan but given the nature of the terrain and length of the border how realistic is this?


Zaffar Abbas:

Realistic to the extent that the bulk of the people still take the traditional routes - the one which joins the North West Frontier province of Pakistan, the other one is the Baluchistan province. So the Pakistani authorities believe that they will be able to stop most of the people at this stage. But he is absolutely right, it is a kind of terrain where it is difficult to stop people from trickling in. It is a 2,500 kilometres long border and traditionally people have been crossing over from Pakistan or Afghanistan from more than 100 different places.

The Pakistani authorities know well that people will still be coming in. But at the same time Pakistanis also say that once there is a real crisis in Afghanistan in the form of any military strikes, then they do have plans to open the border.


Newshost:

Paul Keegan, Dublin, Ireland asks: In your view how easy would it be for Bin Laden to escape from Afghanistan and what would his safest country of refuge at this time?


Zaffar Abbas:

Like many other people, if he wants he can use one of the routes to come into Pakistan. This is precisely the question that was put to the Pakistani foreign ministry official the other day - whether Bin Laden or any member of his Al Khada group can come into Pakistan in the form of Afghan refugees and take refuge over here or hid over here.

Pakistanis would like the world to believe that Pakistan has now become a place where Bin Laden or any of his colleagues have no place to hide and in case they do that it will be a big mistake. At the same time people should remember that when there were bombing incidents where two US embassies were attacked in Africa, the main suspect whose arrest linked Bin Laden to these bombings was arrested from Pakistan - Sadiq Odeh. So Pakistan has been sending signals that Bin Laden's people cannot find safe haven over here.


Newshost:

Sheldon Taylor, Holmen, Wisconsin. USA asks: It seems like Pakistan is like a house of cards. In the event of a civil war, can the present government retain its control on the country?


Zaffar Abbas:

Pakistan has a lot of supporters of the Taleban - there are a lot of religious elements and hard line Islamic groups who support the Taleban and even Osama Bin Laden. But as has been demonstrated in the last week or so, these people can be counted in thousands - at the most, 5 - 10% of the population. They cannot be described as the real true representatives of the country's will or their decisions. So to say that Pakistan at the moment is like a house of cards is probably trying to over-simplify the situation. It is not the case. There are no signs of a civil war in Pakistan at the moment.

But in any case the Pakistani military is a very strong military - it has a half a million standing army. In the past whenever there has been civil unrest in Pakistan, the military has managed to control the situation.

The majority of the mainstream political parties in the country are supporting President Musharraf in his campaign to go all out with the United States and the international community against terrorism and they simply are not worried about the resistance or the opposition being given by the Islamic hardliners


Newshost:

Graeme Rymill, Perth, Australia asks: With the coming of winter would ground operations for any military action in Afghanistan become impossible? Or could military action still be carried out in the less mountainous area?


Zaffar Abbas:

Islamabad is the kind of area where winters are really tough. It's nearly impossible for any alien force to go inside Afghanistan and find the real target. So it will be really difficult for any outside force to carry out a big operation - certainly not a ground operation - at this stage. That is why a lot of people are thinking that if anything is going to happen inside Afghanistan, it will be much before the winter really sets in.


Newshost:

Charles King, Edwardsville, IL USA asks: Have you heard the reports that British and U.S. Special Forces already on the ground in Afghanistan?


Zaffar Abbas:

There have been all kinds of reports about ground forces being sent in there and special forces trying to carry out some kind of covert operation. But we really don't know - it is very difficult to confirm at this stage. Certainly not from the Pakistani side - there has been no real operation of any special forces.

If it was from this northern side where the opposition Northern Alliance has remained active for the last few weeks - we really don't know. But there is no real sign of anything going on. Certainly not the Taleban authorities who are controlling Afghanistan at the moment, who have given protection to Bin Laden, have not really made any such complaint.


Newshost:

Dr M. Tasab, Manchester, UK asks: How easy would it be to distinguish between a normal Afghan in Afghanistan and someone from the Taleban militia?


Zaffar Abbas:

It is nearly impossible to distinguish between the Taleban and any ordinary Afghan for that matter. Many people living on the Pakistani side of say the North West Frontier province or in Baluchistan look the same as the Taleban - they all have beards, they are all very religious people - so it will be really impossible.

But I am sure if this kind of an operation is to be carried out, there will be some intelligence gathering. There are reports that the United States and Pakistani authorities have already started sharing information about Afghanistan, about the Taleban, about the possible hide-outs of Bin Laden. So if there is going to be an operation of this sort, they will know what they have to do and which is their real target.


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