Quetta: Taliban leader Mullah Omar is not hiding in Balochistan, the province's chief minister said yesterday, reiterating that the people of the region remain fiercely opposed to any extension of the US-led war against militancy into their midst.
The United States is considering expanding its covert war in Pakistan into Balochistan, the New York Times reported on Tuesday.
Afghan and foreign officials in Kabul have long said they believe several top Taliban leaders, including Omar, are hiding in Balochistan, but top government officials have always sought to deny the charges.
"Mullah Omar is not in Balochistan, he's in Afghanistan," Balochistan Chief Minister Mohammad Aslam Raisani told reporters in the provincial capital, Quetta.
"If the CIA has any evidence of that they should tell us and we'll get him and send him there," Raisani said, referring to the US Central Intelligence Agency.
The United States has stepped up strikes on militants in ethnic Pashtun tribal areas to the northwest over the past year, mostly with CIA-operated drones that fire missiles.
Some US officials say the missile strikes in the tribal areas have forced some Taliban and Al Qaida leaders to flee toward Quetta, making them more vulnerable, the Times said.
Pakistan objects to the missile strikes, saying they are not only a violation of its sovereignty but complicate its efforts to tackle militants.
"As we have been saying all along, we believe such attacks are counter-productive," Foreign Office spokesman Abdul Basit said last week, when asked about the Times report.
"They involve collateral damage and they are not helpful in our efforts to win hearts and minds," he said.
Raisani said there were two types of Taliban: the violent ones, fighting Nato and US forces in Afghanistan, and peaceful ones studying at religious schools in Balochistan. The word Taliban means religious students.
"The Taliban who are here are studying peacefully," he said.
Raisani said people of Balochistan would oppose any expansion of the US war into their province: "Balochis are united and they will oppose and resist if drone attacks are carried out."
US drones have carried out more than 30 drone strikes since early 2008 when the United States, frustrated by an intensifying insurgency in Afghanistan getting support from the Pakistani side of the border, began attacking with greater frequency.
Eliminating militant support from Pakistani hideouts is seen as essential for winning the war in Afghanistan.
The strikes have killed about 300 people including several mid-level Al Qaida members, according to a tally of reports from Pakistani officials and residents of border regions.
The United States rarely comments on these strikes.
"We've done some serious damage to Al Qaida over the last number of months," US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said last week, without confirming any missile attacks against al Qaida targets.