Afghans probe killings after Pakistani complaint
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, Mar 23: Afghan authorities have launched an investigation into the killing of 16 men an army officer described as Taliban but who Pakistan said were its citizens visiting Afghanistan for a holiday.
The incident could further strain relations between the key US allies in the war on terrorism after a sharp deterioration in ties over Afghan accusations Taliban fighters were finding sanctuary in Pakistan.
General Abdul Raziq, an Afghan army officer in the border town of Spin Boldak, said today his forces had killed 16 Taliban after surrounding them in mountains, 8 km (5 miles) east of the town, near the Pakistani border.
But many residents of Spin Boldak, in Afghanistan's southern Kandahar province, dismissed that explanation and organised a strike on Thursday to protest against the killings.
''We have sent a team to investigate the matter,'' Assadullah Khalid, the governor of Kandahar province, said on Thursday.
''If what residents say is true, then the culprits will be punished,'' he said.
Afghanistan has seen a surge in bomb and other attacks by Taliban insurgents and their militant allies in recent months.
The Taliban have vowed to launch a spring offensive against foreign forces and the Western-backed government.
Pakistani Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao said those killed were Pakistanis visiting Afghanistan for a traditional new year holiday. ''They were all Pakistanis who had gone for Now Rouz,'' Sherpao told a Pakistani television channel, referring to the holiday. He said one of those killed was wanted by Pakistani authorities but added: ''They were not Taliban''.
A Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said the government had asked Afghanistan about the incident and had been told authorities were investigating.
General Raziq said that two Taliban commanders, Mullah Atta Jan and Shish Noorzai, known to have organised suicide attacks and ambushes, were among those killed by his troops.
Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have cooled considerably in recent weeks after Afghan President Hamid Karzai visited Pakistan last month and repeated complaints that Pakistan was not taking stern enough action against Taliban operating from the Pashtun tribal lands on its side of the border.
Pakistan has stationed 80,000 troops on the frontier, but says Afghanistan also needs to do more to stop militants crossing back and forth over the porous border.
President Pervez Musharraf responded angrily to Karzai's complaints, saying members of the government in Kabul were out to malign Pakistan.
Earlier this month, the Pakistan Army launched an attack on an al Qaeda camp in North Waziristan agency, and nearly 200 Pakistani tribal militants were killed in subsequent fighting.
The Taliban were ousted by US-led forces in 2001 for refusing to give up Osama bin Laden and have been fighting since then to expel foreign forces and overthrow the Western-backed Afghan government.
Many militants fled from Afghanistan to Pakistan's lawless tribal areas. Many tribesmen sympathise with the Taliban and feel bound by Pashtun code of honour to protect the militants.