US outraged as Pakistan frees Taliban fighters
Pakistan's credibility as a leading ally in the war on terrorism was called into question last night when it emerged that President Pervez Musharraf's government had authorised the release from jail of thousands of Taliban fighters caught fighting coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Five years after American-led coalition forces overthrew the Taliban during Operation Enduring Freedom, United States officials have been horrified to discover that thousands of foreign fighters detained by Pakistan after fleeing the battleground in Afghanistan have been quietly released and allowed to return to their home countries.
Pakistani lawyers acting for the militants claim they have freed 2,500 foreigners who were originally held on suspicion of having links to al-Qa'eda or the Taliban over the past four years.
The mass release of the prisoners has provoked a stern rebuke to the Musharraf regime from the American government. "We have repeatedly warned Pakistan over arresting and then releasing suspects," said a US diplomat in Islamabad. "We are monitoring their response with great concern."
The Daily Telegraph tracked down and interviewed several former fighters who were part of a batch of eight foreign prisoners released last month. Burhan Ahmad, a 32-year-old Bangladeshi who has an American degree in engineering, admitted helping the Taliban against US-led forces in Afghanistan five years ago.
He was arrested by Pakistani security agents as he passed back over the frontier in 2003. Last month he was released from jail, where he spent three years without facing trial.
Like thousands of other Taliban and al-Qa'eda suspects who have been rounded up in Pakistan, Ahmad is now being fed and sheltered by an Islamic welfare group as he waits while a travel agency that specialises in repatriating jihadis prepares his identity papers and air ticket.
He was handed over to the al-Khidmat Foundation, a welfare organisation run by the hard-line Islamist party Jamaat-i-Islami, by a local court in Peshawar.
"I was arrested on the very same day that I arrived in Pakistan as I crossed from Khost to South Waziristan," said Ahmad who then spent 28 months in the custody of one of Pakistan's intelligence agencies before being transferred to a jail where he was imprisoned for three months. "The situation has become too difficult in Afghanistan and so I wanted to go home. I felt I had played my part."
In the hands of al-Khidmat Ahmad was more concerned with worldly goods than attaining a martyr's end in jihad. He produced a list of his personal items that he wanted back from the security agency: socks, a laptop, a thermal vest and some money.
His lawyer, Fida Gul, said: "He is no problem. He will go to Bangladesh. He is not a criminal and he has been cleared by the security forces. His arrest was illegal."
One of those who spoke to this newspaper was a young Tajik who entered Pakistan last year to study, he claimed, at a madrassa in Peshawar. He was shot in the side by Pakistani police as he tried to escape when the madrassa was raided.
A third former prisoner, a 37-year-old Algerian, had come to fight the Russian-backed government in Afghanistan in the early 1990s. He married a Pakistani woman and claimed to have settled down and worked in the honey business when he was arrested last year.
"I am going home to Algeria as I want to take advantage of an amnesty offered by the government," he said. "I know I will be arrested on arrival and interrogated as this happened to several of my Algerian brothers. But then I will be released as I have done nothing wrong."
On the question of whether released militants would return to jihad, Hazrat Aman, a field officer of the al-Khidmat Foundation, said: "If they react like that it is a natural phenomenon. Some of these people spent two to three years in jail. Some of them will live peacefully and others will join jihad again."
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