WASHINGTON, Nov 20 (Reuters) The United States has set up a programme to train and equip a Pakistani paramilitary force recruited from tribal areas to try to counter Islamist militants, the Pentagon said.
Washington would supply equipment like helmets and flak vests to the tribal force, known as the Frontier Corps, but would not provide weapons or ammunition, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters yesterday.
The plan also calls for the involvement of US Army trainers.
He said the United States government believed the tribal force was best-suited to fight militants who are believed to be behind a surge in violence in Pakistan's lawless mountainous regions bordering on Afghanistan.
''They are locally recruited and have local knowledge, language skills and most of all credibility with the people who live in those areas,'' he said.
Asked about concerns the tribal fighters may not be reliable allies and may have ties to militants, Morrell said: ''I don't think we would be proceeding with a plan of this nature, of this cost, unless we had some degree of confidence that it would be fruitful.'' He said the corps was a legitimate part of Pakistan's security forces and the Pakistani government fully supported the plan.
The United States has criticized President Pervez Musharraf for imposing emergency rule on November 3 and has put US aid to Pakistan under review. But officials have said they will be careful not to undermine counterterrorism efforts.
The US government allocated 52.6 million dollars in the 2007 fiscal year that ended in Sptember to equip eight battalions of the corps, establish a training center and set up joint border surveillance stations with Afghan forces, Morrell said.
The equipment had not yet been delivered and a contract had still to be awarded to establish the training center.
He said the Bush administration had requested 97 million dollars for the program in the current fiscal year but has yet to receive funds from the US Congress.
That would finance the development of four new battalions and establish headquarters for them, among other measures.
Morrell said the Pentagon hoped US Army trainers would be involved in Pakistan but noted they were currently in high demand. The US military is involved in major efforts to train forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
''We're trying to incorporate some foreign military trainers as well,'' Morrell said.
Elements of the plan have been reported by US media in recent weeks. But Morrell's comments were the first time the Pentagon has spoken publicly about the programme.
REUTERS DKS RN0520