Pakistan divided as it puts pressure on Taliban
By Jack Redden
ISLAMABAD, Sept 17 (Reuters) - Pakistan's army said on Monday that Afghanistan's Taliban rulers have deployed a force of between 20,000 and 25,000 fighters just across the border from the Khyber Pass into Pakistan.
A Pakistani army officer said Islamabad had reinforced its own troops fanned out along the 1,400-km (870-mile) long frontier.
"We are also forming our forces, but there has been no firing," Captain Ahmed Bahtti said at a military base in the Khyber Pass, some 200 km (120 miles) west of Islamabad.
The Islamic fundamentalist Taliban warned at the weekend that it would attack Pakistan if it provided help to the United States against Afghanistan. The Americans blame Kabul for sheltering Osama bin Laden, the man believed to have masterminded Tuesday's terror attacks on New York and Washington.
Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, meanwhile, was locked in closed-door meetings on Monday as he tried to try to stave off a U.S. strike on Afghanistan while preparing his nation for a war next door.
In a sign of the growing tension, the U.S. embassy in Pakistan said it had requested permission from Washington for all non-essential American staff and their dependents to be allowed to leave the country.
At the presidential palace in Islamabad, Musharraf was out of sight, apparently meeting advisers and officials of his military government. Aides gave no details of his talks. General Musharraf, who had previously defended Pakistan's backing for the rule of the purist Taliban, is in an awkward position domestically as he lines up behind Washington.
The divisions inside Pakistan were underlined by a meeting in Lahore, Pakistan's second-largest city, of about 50 leaders of the Afghan Defence Council that was formed to protect the Taliban from international demands that they hand over bin Laden.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar, speaking as the delegation arrived in Afghanistan, told CNN in an interview that any decision to hand over bin Laden lay with the Taliban.
Sattar said the delegation would urge the Taliban government "to act responsibly in the terribly grave situation" raised by the attacks on New York and Washington.
While Pakistan would offer Washington full cooperation, Sattar said that any decision on specific help against terrorism would be taken only once Washington made known precisely what action it has in mind.
"Pakistan's position remains quite precarious," wrote The Nation newspaper. "Damned if it helps the U.S., not only by the Taliban but also by the large number of Taliban supporters in the country.
"And damned if it does not, because the U.S., already suspicious of Pakistan's disclaimers of its support to the Taliban, would lump Pakistan and Afghanistan together and act accordingly."
After meeting newspaper editors on Sunday, Musharraf was quoted as saying Pakistan had to be involved in the formation of a new political structure inside Afghanistan -- an admission that he believed that larger changes than the surrender of bin Laden were now inevitable.
In Lahore, the leaders of groups united under the banner of the Afghan Defence Council were meeting to plot their strategy as Washington vowed retribution for the terror attacks in which more than 5,000 people are missing and feared dead.
The group was formed in response to U.N. sanctions invoked last January against the Taliban in a futile effort to force the surrender of bin Laden, whom the Taliban consider a "guest."
But there is broad antagonism in Pakistan to any U.S. attack on Afghanistan. A plan by the United Nations to deploy monitors along the border to enforce its arms embargo on the Taliban was condemned last month across Pakistan's political.
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