Welcome no longer warm in Taleban ``terrorist'' camp
By Sayed Salahuddin
RISHKOR, Afghanistan, June 14 (Reuters) - A sign at a camp the West alleges was used to train terrorists says ``Welcome'' in Arabic and Urdu. But it appears the Taleban greeting for Islamic warriors is no longer warm -- the camp is almost deserted.
Stung by a fresh Western drive to break the Taleban's shield around terrorism suspect Osama bin Laden, the Rishkor camp on the outskirts of the capital, Kabul, was vacated about one month ago, according to the Taleban and people from nearby villages.
``Yes, there were Pakistanis and Arabs here a month ago receiving training,'' said Hashmatullah, a youth from the area. ``Now they have gone to the front.''
The ``front'' is the battle line between the Taleban the opposition led by guerrilla leader Ahmad Shah Masood, who clings to the 10 percent of Afghanistan outside Taleban control since it swept to power nearly four years ago.
Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taleban's reclusive leader, denied fresh accusations of giving sanctuary to terrorists when the U.S. State Department said last month that Afghanistan and Pakistan were becoming a new terrorism hub.
But for the Taleban, the line between terrorism and Jihad, or Holy War, is blurred, and does not explain Western intelligence estimates that up to 1,500 foreign militants including Arabs, Chechens and Uzbeks, are in Afghanistan.
The men who trained in Rishkor have melted away into a country which has been at war with the occupying Soviet Union or itself for most of the last two decades.
Witnesses said they have merely shifted camp and gone to the Mohammad Agha district of Logar province to the south of Rishkor, where bin Laden has occasionally been sighted.
Or they might have gone to conduct Jihad in Indian Kashmir.
``The Jihad for Kashmir is the starting point of India's liberation,'' read one slogan written in Urdu on a wall. Another says: ``We are merely fighting for Allah.''
Several hundred diehard Islamic fighters were seen daily training on the now abandoned obstacle courses, firing ranges and ancient artillery pieces that still litter the Rishkor camp.
Not so says Amri Mohammad, the Taleban head of what remains of Rishkor. By his account the camp was used only by Taleban fighters in their war against Masood -- a war the West says is backed by militants from religious schools in Pakistan.
``We didn't have any foreigners in the past and we don't have them now. Everyone here is an Afghan saving his own country.''
``We collect our people here before the fighting. If 2,000 men come, 1,000 stay behind and 1,000 go to the frontline. There are 300 fighters here at present, others have gone home, but the time for fighting is come and we're recalling our men,'' he said.
But the Taleban's annual summer offensive against Masood appears to be delayed or stalled and diplomats believe the threat of fresh new sanctions being canvassed by the United States and Russia to get bin Laden extradited may be the reason.
Diplomats said U.N. Security Council members were considering fresh Taleban-specific sanctions to augment a November 1999 trade and flight ban aimed at forcing out the man accused of masterminding the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Africa, which killed more than 200.
The multilingual evidence and accounts of local people suggest that the camp was used by foreigners to wage Holy War either in Afghanistan, or in Indian Kashmir or elsewhere.
One sign says Harkatul Jihad Islami, a breakaway faction of Harkatul Mujahideen, a Kashmiri militant group accused of carrying out the year-end hijacking of an Indian airliner to the Taleban's spiritual capital of Kandahar.
The camp, a former military base, is tucked away behind farming land in a dusty valley a half hour's drive from Kabul.
It was set up weeks after the United States fired cruise missiles against suspected bin Laden training camps in Afghanistan in retaliation for the 1998 bombings in Africa.
Villagers, and even some Taleban fighters, said the camp was closed almost one month ago under pressure from Pakistan, the Taleban's closest neighbour, ally and supporter.
Pakistan, itself under intense pressure from the West to contain the terrorism virus, wanted it shut to stamp out sectarian violence in Pakistan itself, diplomats said.
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