Afghan Taliban supporting Pakistani militants

WAZIRISTAN, Pakistan (AP) — The Afghan Taliban are financially supporting Pakistani militants at war with Islamabad and providing sanctuary for them in neighboring Afghanistan, the Pakistani Taliban’s spokesman said, highlighting the risk both groups pose to the Pakistani government.

The disclosure, which the spokesman made Saturday in an interview with a small group of reporters, is meaningful because Pakistan has long been accused of pursuing a policy of differentiating between the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban as so-called “good” and “bad” militants — even though Islamabad denies this.

Pakistan has waged war against the Pakistani Taliban, which seeks to replace the country’s democratic system with one based on Islamic law. But it has held off on targeting the Afghan Taliban, which has focused its attacks on U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan. Pakistan has historical ties with the Afghan Taliban, and many analysts believe Islamabad views the group as a useful ally in Afghanistan after foreign forces withdraw.

But the Taliban spokesman’s comments illustrate the dangerous nexus between the two groups. This link could become even more dangerous for Pakistan as the U.S. withdraws most of its combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. That could give the Afghan Taliban more space to operate inside Afghanistan, which could benefit Islamabad’s enemies in the Pakistani Taliban.

“The Afghan Taliban are our jihadi brothers,” Shahidullah Shahid said in an interview in Waziristan, the Taliban’s main tribal sanctuary in Pakistan along the Afghan border. “In the beginning, we were helping them, but now they are strong enough and they don’t need our help, but they are now supporting us financially.”

The Afghan Taliban are also providing sanctuary for a prominent Pakistani Taliban commander, Mullah Fazlullah, in eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar province, said Shahid. Fazlullah was the commander of the Taliban in Pakistan’s northwest Swat Valley but was driven into Afghanistan when the Pakistani army launched a big offensive there in 2009.

The army has also staged many offensives in Pakistan’s semiautonomous tribal region, the Taliban’s main sanctuary, but the militants have proven resilient and continue to carry out regular attacks.

The Taliban have financed many of these attacks through a combination of kidnappings, extortion and bank robberies. But Shahid’s comments indicate these sources of financing do not always provide the funds they need.

The government has more recently stepped up efforts to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban, but those efforts do not appear to be making much progress.

Shahid reiterated the Taliban’s view that peace talks will not succeed unless the government releases all militant prisoners and withdraws the army from the tribal region. He also demanded an end to U.S. drone strikes targeting militants in the tribal region.

The Taliban requested that the reporters not reveal exactly where in Waziristan the interview took place.

Meanwhile, a bomb exploded in northwest Pakistan early Monday, killing six people taking part in an anti-polio campaign, a police officer said.

The bomb went off just as a van drove by carrying security officials who were supposed to protect vaccinators as they went to local houses to administer the anti-polio vaccine, said police official Samiullah Khan.

The incident happened in the village of Malikhel, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) outside the provincial capital of Peshawar. Four police officers and two members of a local peace committee riding in the van were killed, Khan said.

Pakistan is one of three countries in the world where polio is still endemic.

Part of the reason that it is still prevalent is that militants who oppose the campaign often target the workers delivering the vaccine and threaten people who want to get their kids vaccinated. Many Pakistanis also worry about having their children vaccinated because they view the vaccination campaign as a western plot to harm Muslims.

During these vaccination campaigns, teams of polio workers often accompanied by police escorts go door to door in villages and towns to administer the vaccinations. The campaign targeted Monday had originally been scheduled for September, but was delayed over security concerns, said a health official. He did not want to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

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Associated Press writer Riaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.

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