* Taliban member says they come in different batches to Karachi to rest, seek money, get medical treatment
KARACHI: Taliban fighters seeking money, rest and refuge from US missile strikes are turning up in increasing numbers in Karachi, according to the Taliban, police officials and an intelligence memo.
The Taliban presence in the port city shows how quickly their influence is spreading throughout the country.
Karachi is critical because it is the main entryway for supplies headed to US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and is the country’s financial hub.
Few believe the Taliban could actually take over Karachi, but there is fear that they could destabilise it through violence.
Although a modern city by all standards, Karachi still remains the place where US journalist Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and found beheaded in 2002. Al Qaeda operatives including suspected September 11 attack plotter Ramzi Binalshibh have been arrested from the city, which is believed to have been a launching pad for the attackers who killed 164 people in the Mumbai attacks.
As the military intensifies its attacks in the north and the US continues with missile attacks, more Taliban are seeking safety in Karachi and other urban areas, their member said.
Batches: “We come in different batches to Karachi to rest and if needed, get medical treatment, and stay with many of our brothers who are living here in large numbers,” 32-year-old Taliban Omar Gul Mehsud told AP.
Shah Jahan, a 35-year-old who said he commands about 24 Taliban fighters in South Waziristan Agency, said the Taliban were scattering throughout Pakistan to avoid the US missile strikes. He said groups of 20 to 25 fighters would fight for a few months, then take leaves of up to one month in cities including Karachi.
“We are more alert and cautious following the drone attacks, and we understand that it is not a wise approach to concentrate in a large number in the war-torn areas,” he said.
On the outskirts of Karachi, large settlements of Afghan refugees and displaced Pakistani have swelled over the past year by as many as 200,000 people. These refugees and IDPs are mostly Pashtun. An intelligence report obtained by the AP warned that such neighbourhoods had become favoured hideouts for the Taliban linked to Baitullah Mehsud.
The report from the police’s special branch said Mehsud-linked terrorists were arriving in batches of 20 to 25 every 30 to 35 days “for rest as well as for generating funds”. It added that the Taliban made money “through criminal activities like kidnapping for ransom, bank robbery, street robbery and other heinous crimes”.
The Sohrab Goth neighbourhood is next to Super Highway, a major thoroughfare for materials heading to Afghan-based US and NATO forces. Past ethnic violence in the area, including as recently as December, has led to shutdowns of the highway.
Senior police officer Raja Omar Khattab said investigations showed earth-excavation companies owned by members of the Mehsud tribe were helping fund the Taliban.
“Forcibly or voluntarily, they are bound to pay 40 percent of their earnings to Baitullah because they belong to that tribe and they are concerned about their survival and their links to their tribe,” he said.
AD Khwaja, another senior police official, said up to a third of Karachi bank robberies in the past two or three years were believed to have helped fund terrorist groups, including the Taliban.
Analysts, political leaders and security officials agree that the Taliban have a network in Karachi, but differ on their actual numbers and the immediacy of the threat.
Khwaja estimated hundreds of Taliban, while leaders of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement said the Taliban presence was in thousands, warning that the Taliban could find support among the countless students who attend Karachi’s 3,000 madrassas. ap