WaPo : Top Taliban Commander Is Captured In Pakistan

Monday, February 11, 2008

Top Taliban Commander Is Captured In Pakistan

Leader in Afghan South Claimed Bin Laden Ties

By Candace Rondeaux | Washington Post Foreign Service | February 12, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Feb. 11 -- A top Taliban commander in Afghanistan who claimed close ties to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was captured Monday in southwestern Pakistan, according to a Pakistani military official.

Mansour Dadullah, who oversaw Taliban fighters in southern Afghanistan, was wounded in a firefight with paramilitary forces in the restive province of Baluchistan, according to Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, a spokesman for the Pakistani military. The province borders Afghanistan.

"It is a big capture, and it works in favor of the security forces to find these miscreants and deal with them," Abbas said.

Some news organizations reported that Dadullah had died while being transported to a hospital, but Abbas insisted he was alive.

Last year, Dadullah took command of Taliban forces in the southern Afghan province of Helmand after his brother, Mullah Dadullah, was killed in a gunfight with U.S. and Afghan troops. He was believed to have commanded thousands of fighters, and claimed he had met with al-Qaeda's No. 2 commander, Ayman al-Zawahiri, after being appointed to succeed his brother.

Late last year, there were reports that Mansour Dadullah had been relieved of his Taliban command after a falling-out with the group's leader, Mohammad Omar. Dadullah had denied those reports.

The operation against him unfolded a week before national parliamentary elections in Pakistan. The run-up to the vote has been marked by increasing fears over security at the polls and an upsurge in violence in the country's northwest. On Monday, a suicide bombing in the town of Mir Ali, in North Waziristan, killed at least eight supporters of the opposition Awami National Party.

The bombing was the second attack in the past week on the ANP, a secular party. On Saturday, at least 25 people were killed and more than three dozen injured after a suicide bomber set off a powerful blast during a party meeting in the northwestern town of Charsadda. ANP leaders have said their party is being targeted because it is expected to win a majority of seats in North-West Frontier Province.

Anxiety about the deteriorating security situation was further fueled by the disappearance Monday of Pakistan's ambassador to Afghanistan, Tariq Azizuddin, who went missing while he was driving back to Kabul through one of Pakistan's tribal regions, according to the Reuters news service. Officials with Pakistan's Foreign Ministry could not be reached late Monday for comment.

The clash that led to Dadullah's arrest occurred a few hundred miles to the south of Mir Ali, in Baluchistan, a hardscrabble province where a number of recent battles have been fought between Pakistani security forces and radicals. Last week, top Pakistani and U.S. military officials sought to dispel reports that bin Laden, Omar and other radical leaders had moved their base of operations to the province from southern Afghanistan.

Abbas, the Pakistani military spokesman, denied such reports again Monday.

"We have heard this kind of rumor and we have always wanted someone to point him out to us," Abbas said, referring to bin Laden. "But until that happens and we find him here, we reject this categorically."

In August, Dadullah was reported killed in a U.S.-led airstrike in southern Afghanistan. But military officials later acknowledged that he had probably survived the bombing.

Believed to be in his 30s, Dadullah was a little-known figure among rank-and-file Taliban fighters until last year, when he and four other Taliban commanders were released from an Afghan prison in exchange for the freedom of Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo, who along with an Afghan journalist and their driver had been abducted by insurgents in March.

"Dadullah's arrest is a severe blow to the Taliban insurgents quite apart from the speculations of his expulsion from the Taliban movement. He has a good following in the insurgency-hit areas, and that makes him an important figure," said Fazal Rahim Marwat, a professor at Peshawar University and the author of two books on the Taliban.

Abbas said all six men captured Monday were injured in the fight, but none critically. He said Dadullah's arrest could lead to the capture of other key Taliban leaders who may also be working in the region.

"We are hopeful that after [Dadullah's] interrogation, we can find out more about the operations and capture more" Taliban fighters, Abbas said.

Dadullah's capture comes in the wake of a succession of visits from top U.S. officials to the region, including Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Saturday. The United States has sharply increased pressure on the government of President Pervez Musharraf to wage a more effective fight against extremists since the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in December.

Special correspondent Imtiaz Ali in Peshawar contributed to this report.